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Rejected but Accepted

A hospice in India offers a loving home to AIDS-infected women B Y S O N YA S V O B O D A

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E

ver since Uma’s husband had tested positive for HIV, her mother-in-law had been blaming her for it, despite the fact that Uma herself had tested negative. But after giving birth to their first child, Uma watched her health rapidly decline.After undergoing some tests, this time she tested positive for HIV.After taking her to a hospital, her mother-in-law left her there, separating her from her husband and newborn daughter. During her stay there, she met some of the team members from PACT (Project AIDS through Care and Training), who invited her to live in their hospice. She gratefully took up their offer.The hospice staff also set out determinedly to restore Uma’s daughter to her and were successful. Uma’s story is not uncommon among HIV/AIDS victims in India. But hospices which would care enough to restore a daughter to her mother are rare.When PACT opened its 10bed hospice in May, 2000, it was the first of its kind in the southern city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), India. Today, although a similar hospice has since opened its doors in Chennai, PACT is forced to turn patients away due to lack of space.The PACT hospice is known as a place where HIV/AIDS patients are treated as people rather than medical problems. To date 80 women have passed through their care; some have died, while others have been reunited with their families. Through their Home Care Program, PACT has been able to reach out beyond the walls of the hospice. Once a month the team visits families who have one or more HIV/AIDSinfected persons in their family, providing not only a monthly ration of rice but also counselling and education on HIV/ AIDS. If necessary, the team will take the patient for a doctor’s visit, and they provide financial support for the education of the patient’s children.The team currently visits 100 families monthly and provides 65 children with fees for school uniforms, books, and shoes. “There is no hope for the children if they don’t go to school,” explains Wilson Prabhu, overseer of the hospice.“We have also enrolled orphans in a boarding school.They come to us during the summer holidays,” he says with a smile on his face, joking about how large his family has become. The atmosphere here truly resembles a family.The women smile with a joyfulness rooted in security. PACT has provided a home away from home for these women and a place in which they can live out their lives in dignity. It is a shelter away from the fiery arrows of blame shot at them by society and their family. Because of the depth of rejection these women have faced,

there are many issues they have to work through. “After [women stay in the hospice] about four months or so, things start to come out in stages.There is a lot of anger and often they want revenge,” Prabhu says, reflecting on their transition. “Ninety percent of these women are not Christians.” PACT’s staff is committed to walking them through their issues and giving ongoing counselling and spiritual care. In the 1990s India’s HIV/AIDS population was in the low thousands. Today, however, according to a U.N. report, 5.1 million Indians (both adults and children) carry the virus, and 38 percent of these are women. In a country where both sex and AIDS have long been taboo subjects, this devastating disease is fast spreading its tentacles into every level of Indian

Above: Because children of HIV/AIDS-infected parents are welcome in very few places, PACT runs a school within the hospice.

society.Although these figures may seem low in comparison to the figures of other countries, the rate in India is climbing at an alarming rate; India’s AIDS population will reportedly overtake that of Africa in just 10 years. Both NGOs and the government are carrying out aggressive and concentrated campaigns to combat the spread of this deadly disease. In India the disease is the most rampant among men working in the trucking industry and, consequently, their families. Truck drivers are often gone for a minimum of two weeks, and during this time many of them visit brothels at various points.When they return home, they pass the virus on to their wives.This behavior has played a crucial role in the spread

Opposite: Uma, wearing eyeglasses, is one of 10 women who, rejected by their families, are currently living at the PACT hospice.

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Wilson Prabhu, pictured here with his son, Jose, and wife, Elizabeth, felt the Lord leading him to offer a refuge and Christ's love to women infected with HIV/AIDS.

would never work in this field. However, one evening in August, 1996, his life took a sharp curve. At the time, Prabhu was involved with a church-planting team.The team members would often walk through various sections of the city, praying for the area as they walked. One day, after returning exhausted from such a walk, he lay down on his bed. With his eyes closed, he saw before him three words flashing in neon lights: “Rejected but accepted.” He wasn’t sure what it meant but kept it in his memory, hoping for future clarification. Through further incidences, Prabhu became convinced that the Lord was leading him to work among HIV/AIDS victims—those rejected by society but accepted by God. During six weeks of training in Bombay, he had his first contact with AIDS victims, faced and overcame his fears about AIDS, and discovered compassion burning in his heart. He returned to Chennai a changed man and immediately began travelling around the city inquiring about NGO activities. None offered any form of long-term care to AIDS patients but instead had concentrated their efforts on spreading awareness about the disease. Prabhu eventually volunteered his time at a TB hospital which had opened two wards to HIV/AIDS victims to address the growing need. But there was still a vast shortage of beds, and many patients were turned away. It was while working there that Prabhu observed the acute vulnerability of female patients, and he decided to open a hospice that would cater to women and restore their dignity to them.When PACT opened in 2000, Prabhu and his team

of HIV/AIDS around the country, as the drivers cross hundreds of kilometres. A recent survey found that among men over the age of 40, a high proportion are sexually promiscuous, abuse alcohol, and have little knowledge of AIDS. Because of the stigma attached to this disease, many of the victims’ families shun them, leaving them to take care of themselves. Whether they live on the streets or hold a job, loneliness weighs on both male and female victims because of the rejection they receive not only from their families but also from society at large. But women are far more vulnerable than men when it comes to dealing with the after-effects of the disease. It is much harder for them to establish a life for themselves, and they more often than not end up living on the streets.When a woman’s husband dies of AIDS, her in-laws will often hold her responsible for his death, the logic being that she apparently failed to curtail her husband’s sexual activities. Even if she herself remains healthy, it will be difficult for her to remain in the home after her husband’s death. But if she tests positive for HIV, she will be not be allowed to remain with the family; nor will she return to her own family, for fear of bringing shame upon them. Hope is hard to come by in such a situation.

How You Can Help As Wilson Prabhu says, “There is no hope for the children if they don’t go to school.” Providing financial assistance for the victim’s family is one of PACT’s top priorities.The majority of the people PACT works with are either low-income or impoverished, so when the virus takes hold they are often unable to work and thus have no money for their children’s school fees, uniforms, and text books. If you are interested in contributing a one-time gift or becoming a regular supporter, you may contact PACT at elzywilson@eth.net

A Journey to Compassion Wilson Prabhu did not always see himself working with HIV/ AIDS victims. Raised in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, he grew up believing AIDS was a disease of the immoral and feared that if he came into contact with them he, too, would contract the disease. Sitting among his work colleagues, he watched a video on the spread of AIDS in Africa. As he watched children burying their parents, Prabhu prayed he

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knew more than enough women who were eager to move in. PACT envisions expanding the original hospice from 10 to 50 beds by 2007.They recently opened a separate hospice for children with the virus. Many of the women who came to the hospice have children, some infected, others not. Some of these children are now orphans. Because of the difficulty of enrolling these children in a regular school, PACT also runs a school within the children’s hospice. Children of HIV/AIDSinfected parents are welcome in very few places, and they often live on street pavements, at bus shelters, and on railway station platforms. The PACT team finds out about these children via word of mouth or sometimes by talking to them in the streets and inviting them to live in their hospice. Although PACT is committed to giving long-term care to the women, they also work to reconcile the women with their families. If the woman is open to reconciliation, the staff members will educate the family about every aspect of the disease and discuss any issues that arise.The reunification process can take anywhere from six months to two years. Once the woman is reunited with her family, PACT remains in contact and continues talking to the family for six months to help them through each step of the process.They have witnessed both successful and unsuccessful efforts at reunification, but since PACT imposes no limit on how long a woman can remain

in the hospice, she is always welcome back should efforts fail to reunite her permanently with her family. As the women residents pass away, no longer able to battle their disease, Prabhu and the rest of the PACT staff have discovered that the work they have chosen can be heartwrenching. But they have also discovered that life goes on, and not one of them has lost the compassion that first stirred them to extend their hand to those suffering from AIDS. They have truly followed God’s call to reach out to the needy with mercy and provide for their needs. Uma, whose story began this article, today resides happily at the PACT hospice. She recently attended a Christian discipleship program and has also been trained under experienced schoolteachers. Today she is a teacher at PACT’s school for HIV-positive children. ■

From Horror to Hope, continued from page 23.

• World Vision International’s HIV Hope Initiative focuses on prevention, care (particularly for vulnerable children), and advocacy (www.wvi.org/wvi/aids/global_aids.htm). • Scripture Union has developed a wide range of posters, videos, booklets, and courses that are being used extensively in schools across Africa to fight the spread of AIDS (www.su-international.org).

PACT is a ministry of YWAM (Youth With A Mission). An international, interdenominational mission,YWAM was founded in India in August 1982.YWAM Chennai is committed to meeting the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of the city’s residents through a variety of multifaceted ministries. To learn more about this organization, visit www.ywam.org. Sonya Svoboda is a freelance writer based in Chennai, India.

of a vaccine (for further information and a publicity tool kit go to www.aidsinfo.nih.gov/other/vaccineday2004.asp) and National HIV-Testing Day (June 27), which encourages people at risk to receive voluntary HIV counselling and testing (www.hivtest.org). • Form a “He Intends Victory (HIV)” chapter with your church to support outreach opportunities and promote a spiritual awakening within the HIV/AIDS community (www.heintendsvictory.com).

VOLUNTEER You don’t have to go to Africa to find people affected by AIDS. In some of our towns and cities you may be the only one to visit a person whose friends and family have deserted him. Showing Christ’s love through practical help like cooking a meal, cleaning, or doing errands, coupled with a willingness to pray and listen, is the best way to provide a lifeline. Most mission agencies are glad to accept short-term volunteers overseas. Opportunities range from medical teams to hands-on help for children orphaned by AIDS. Act4Africa invites people to join three-week summer teams that use the performing arts to promote HIV/AIDs awareness and extend God’s kingdom (admin@act4africa.co.uk). Check out other openings at www.globalmission.org, www.volunteer.org.nz, or www.christianvocations.org.

GET BEHIND OTHER MINISTRY EFFORTS Identify Christian agencies and individuals that are effectively fighting HIV/AIDS, or ministering to sufferers, and support them financially. Here are just a few: • ACET—AIDS Care, Education, and Training International —is an alliance of organizations founded by Christian doctor Patrick Dixon that networks to provide resources and funding for worthwhile projects in a number of countries (www.acet-international.com).

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Rejected But Accepted  

March April 2005

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