21 May 2007
responsibilty - answering the question of why
Stefani didn’t know what to expect as they pulled up to the squatter camp. It was enormous, containing tens of thousands of the most beautiful, most impoverished people she had ever seen. It was dirty, the red African earth ground into dust that covered everything from the tin shacks to the children playing just outside of them. It was foul, smelling of rotting garbage, human waste, and rotting humans, wasting away.
She had been there once before, as part of a programmatic outreach. This, however, was different. She had been asked to return by the local HIV/AIDS outreach. She had been asked to bring a couple of the other Americans with her.
“Please come back,” the woman had said, as her rosy cheeks shined against her deep brown skin. “You must listen to the stories of these people. You must touch their hands and faces.” It was not so much an invitation as a compassionate command.
As the handful of white faces she had brought with her began their journey into the jungle of tin and cardboard, into the tangled morass of disease, hunger, and infestation, they seemed to realize that this excursion was not part of the usual mission trip. This was well beyond ordinary.
Now deep inside the squatter camp, they were deftly led by a guide who obviously knew the place well.
They stopped in one shack after another, each one smaller than the last, each one with it’s own distinct, strangely unpleasant smell. All of the shacks, different as they were, had one common element. Each held a human being devastated by the AIDS virus.
Inside, they would be introduced and smile as best they could. The haunting eyes of the bones and flesh staring at them from the bed, however, rendered any attempt at felicity to be blatantly forced.
The Americans listened to the stories of these wondrous, forgotten, dying people. They sat at the bedsides of people they had never met - and they cried as the devastation seemed to travel from the bones of the dying into the hearts of the well. Prayers were said for the victims, the tears pouring from the Americans eyes more powerful than any words they could speak.
For hours, the handful of white faces saw things that few like them will ever get to see. They saw what AIDS looks like when it is real, when it has a family and a name. They witnessed what AIDS looks like when it leaves children alone, drawing in the dust. They touched the hands of the disappearing. The wept with those who were too weak to mourn any more. And as they climbed back into the van, to leave that haunted shell of human destruction, they were absolutely silent, save for a few sniffles and the sound of tears rolling down a few weathered and tired cheeks.
Recently, I asked Stefani to describe that experience with only one word.
“Responsible,” she forced out, emotions welling up. “We are responsible. How can it be like that? I wanted to crawl into the bed for them. I wanted to be the one in there, coughing and dying so slowly. I wanted these innocent people to walk, to live. Why me? Why them? I wanted...” her voice trailed off for a second.
“I wanted to die there for them.”
She said that she was completely overwhelmed. Based on her tears almost two years later, I’d say she still is.
“We are responsible,” she whispered again. “We are responsible.”
People often ask why we decided to return to Africa, where the idea to move came from. It came from that experience. It came from hundreds of others like it. It came from the heart of a young woman who could not shake the voices of the past, who could not deny the responsibility that we have in Africa - as Christ-followers and as fellow human beings. It came from the whispers of the dying in the shacks of that squatter camp and from the red letters of the bible which will not allow us to forget the dismal people who are living in squalor as a result of simple circumstance and geography. The call to move came from the laughter of the children of the squatter camp, unaware of the life they are doomed to, still hopeful that something better exists beyond the crumbling walls of their village. It came from the belief that we may be able to sustain that hope. It came from somewhere deep within, where the beauty and love of Jesus Christ compels us to believe that a difference can still be made, that no one, no matter how sick or poor or dirty or lost, is beyond redemption. We are going...because we are responsible.