Friday, January 21, 2011

A personal take on addressing the HIV/AIDS issue

I remember when the HIV/AIDS epidemics first became widespread and everybody – from governments to civil organizations – panicked. They devised all kinds of campaigns to fight against the spread of this terrible disease. They told people that HIV was an incurable disease that if you got it, you were pretty much given a death sentence. People who had HIV were drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, and people who led rather impure lifestyles. HIV was something that everyone had to fear. People were also led to fear those who suffered from it. Thus the public learned to be both afraid of the virus as well as the people who carried it. HIV/AIDS sufferers became rejected by their family and ostracized by their community.

The stigma associated with HIV/AIDS is still prevalent in many countries, and in Thailand, it is also present. Unfortunately, old impressions die hard and nowadays, HIV/AIDS sufferers continue to be feared and avoided by others. A few days ago, Joe, an AIDS patient at the Mother of Perpetual Help Center told me that when he was in the hospital the week before, none of the patients in the ward dared to come close to him. Everytime a new patient came, the patients already there would warn them about Joe. “I was so embarrassed the whole time I was in the hospital,” he said.

It is this reality that has inspired me to create activities in my ministry that aim at bringing people together to bridge differences and misunderstandings. While I believe that in order to solve a problem, one must address it head on. Thus, matters related to HIV/AIDS need to be taught to the people, especially students in school. Thepublic need to hear the truth about HIV/AIDS and need to hear the stories of those who suffer from this disease. People with and without HIV/AIDS need to share with each other about their experiences to create sympathy and understanding between one another.

On the other hand, I also believe that somethings don’t need to be constantly talked about. People need a chance to live just as people, doing the things that people do, and relating to each other not based on labels or blood test results, but based on the essence of being human.

Thus is the nature of many of the activities that I create in my work. Youth with HIV do volunteer work beside those who do not have the virus. Parishioners in our church who come from the general community worship side by side with AIDS patients from the hospice located next to the church. Children from the community engage in activities alongside those from the home for orphans with HIV. Young people with and without HIV cook and eat with each other whenever they come for group meetings.

The focus of the activity at hand is the worship, the learning, the working, the sharing of the food, etc.. The focus is not on HIV/AIDS and it doesn’t have to be. Our activities let people be people. It is not hiding the fact about HIV/AIDS. Nor is it avoiding the issue. Everyone who comes to the church, or to the class, or to the activity knows the backgrounds of the people around them. Yet, they come because they accept the people that they meet and they enjoy the activity that they are doing. It is not uncommon for a youth who doesn’t have HIV to remind her friend that it’s time to take her retro-viral medicine. Nor is it uncommon for a casual conversation between a young person and a hospice patient to revolve around the patient’s health problems.

Will this have a positive effect on the HIV/AIDS issue? I believe it can. I believe by simply being together, the acceptance will be both ways. People without HIV/AIDS will come to realize that they don’t have to be afraid of those who have the virus. On the other hand, people who are infected with HIV may realize that it is OK for them to be a part of society, and that there is a place for them in the community. The issue of HIV/AIDS acceptance will improve when the community opens their heart to those who are positive with the virus. And it will also improve when HIV+ people do not isolate themselves from society. My role, I believe, is to facilitate the opportunity for such meetings to take place, so that understanding, sympathy, and acceptance can take shape and grow.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reflecting on the Jesus Youth 25th Jubilee Celebration

5 January 2011

In today’s society, young people are taught to study hard to be successful in life. It’s not bad advice. After all, to have a college degree, a respectable profession and the perks of modern life is important and something that we should strive for. But in the midst of our ambitions for material success, oftentimes, we forget that there’s more to life than education, career, and possessions. We forget that in the end, all those things are meaningless if they are not placed in context of something even greater and more profound, which is is to serve God and our fellow human beings.

Unfortunately, for so many people this more profound spiritual dimension of success never surfaces in their consciousness as they go about preparing for university entrance exams, graduation thesis, job interviews, and acquirng money to buy the things they need and want in life. It is this reality that makes me worried when looking at our society, and makes me feel so overwhelmingly grateful when I think about the members of Jesus Youth Movement.

At the 25th Jubilee Conference held from 28 December 2010 to 1 January 2011 in Kochin, India, I had the chance to meet many members of Jesus Youth, from just regular members to individuals who devote full time to the work of the movement. They were university students who majored in all sorts of fields. They were post grad students in medicine and engineering. They were professionals in information technology, film and music. They represented the ambitious, technological suave, hard driven members of generation X and Y. And yet, something distinctly set them apart from the stereotypical Xs and Ys – and that’s their zeal and love for God, for the Church, and for the mission of the Church. They realized that their ability and gifts were to be put to the service of God. They were not afraid to pray and praise God before others. They were not hesitant to sacrifice their time and money for the work of the movement, which is to proclaim the Good News to all the ends of the earth – a command that Jesus did not mean just for priests and religious missionaries, but for all God’s people by virtue of our Christian baptism.

At the Jesus Youth Jubilee Conference, among the 22,000 participants, there were many bishops, hundreds of priests and over 1,000 sisters. It was an inspiring sight to see the leaders of the Church coming to participate, to encourage, and to show their solidarity with Jesus Youth, which is essentially a lay movement. But for me, the words and images that are most edged in my mind did not come from the cardinal, the bishops nor the priests. But they came from the passionate testimonies of Jesus Youth members, the prayers that the singers said in between powerful Christian rock songs praising God, and the words of reminder from Jesus Youth professionals that we priests are needed to accompany them as they carry out the Church’s mission. I also remember the images of many youth who came up to me to talk and ask for blessings, of the thousands of hands raised in intent prayer, of eyes closed as the youth said the Rosary praying for the New Year’s Eve downpour to stop so that the program could go on.

Looking back on the Jesus Youth Jubilee Conference, I feel humbled by the skills and talent of the members, encouraged by their missionary spirit, empowered by their prayers, and grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference and to accompany the Jesus Youth Movement as we try to proclaim the Good News here in Thailand.

I pray that as our Thai youth try to climb the social ladder to be on par with the youth of the world, they will remember the true purpose of everything that they are striving for. The model of Jesus Youth Movement is one that we can certainly adopt and immitate in order to bring about the Kingdom of God in our lives and our world. Let us begin by imagining that the zeal and love for God and for the Church that was seen at the Jubilee Conference can be seen here in Thailand, among our youth and in our very churches.