December 1st was World AIDS Day. I do realize it's two weeks later and I'm finally sitting down to write this. This has become a difficult subject for me as of recently. I never cared about December 1st before. To me, it was just another day on the calendar.
But this year, my heart was changed. I knew before we stepped foot on the plane, we would be encountering AIDS patients, we would see the first hand the devastation that is killing South Africa. The flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg was full. There wasn't an empty seat on the plane. A few minutes after our flight took off, I started talking to the lady sitting next to me. I noticed she had an accent, I asked her if she was from South Africa. She stated she was from Nambia, but she had to take a plane to Johannesburg and then catch a smaller commute plane for her final destination. She explained that she currently lived in Canada and was coming home for a funeral. Her nephew had been killed in some sort of accident. She told me she had bought a one way ticket for the time due to her other nephew. See, she was coming home to bury her nephew that was killed and to grieve with her family, but she was also coming on a one way ticket because her other nephew was dying of AIDS. Her family didn't think he would be living very much longer.
I sat there speechless, trying to hold back the tears. It was at the moment I began to grasp what I was really stepping into when I got off that plane. I had never met anyone who had been affected by AIDS. That woman will always have a place etched in my brain. Her name was Rosalie. I can still hear her Nambian accent and see her beautiful cheekbones.
A few days after arriving in Johannesburg, we began to visit AIDS patients, the AIDS clinic, and the cemetary. We were given an AIDS presentation that Helping Hands gives to the high schools. It was the most educational presentation I think I've ever heard. I could read a million articles about AIDS, how it's acquired, what it does to the body and still never fully grasp the entire concept. But this presentation made it all so clear.
My team broke up into two smaller teams to visit the AIDS patients. We briefly talked with them and then took their hand or layed or hand on their shoulder or leg and prayed for these people. We prayed that they would understand how much God loves them, no matter what. Some didn't appear to be sick at all, but some were so sick they could barely move from their makeshift bed on the floor. Some of the people were so young, younger than me. AIDS has mostly devastated people between the ages of 25-47, so I shouldn't have been surprised how young some people were, but I was shocked. Here I stood, a 33 year old woman, staring into the face of a man who probably wasn't any more than 25. I've still got years of life in me, but he was at the tail end of his life. It really puts things in perspective.
The AIDS clinic was too small, completely overflowing with people, mostly women with children. The nurses were understaffed and overworked. This one small clinic services an entire community of patients. I completely commend the nurses, they were doing the best they could with the resources they had. One of the nurses told my teammate (she is a nurse also) that we didn't want this life. All I could think about was working there, an extra set of hands to help in some way.
The cemetary brought it all home to me. A grave was being dug as we arrived. Another person had lost their life to this horrible disease. Just like the clinic, it was overflowing. Overflowing with graves and graves of people who had lost their lives. Some of them may have died of natural causes, but most of them were AIDS related. We were mesmerized by reading all of the name plaques. The rows just seem to go on and on.
So, this year and from every year on, December 1st has a new meaning to me. I won't just think about AIDS or how I can make a difference on this day, but I'll think about it every day as I look at the rock I took from the cemetary it's sitting in my living room.
One thing I know for sure and it was deepened while I was in South Africa, Gods love is so much bigger than AIDS and His love will conquer all.