I spent March 11 through 15 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. I was there as a member of the National Commission on HIV/AIDS of the Episcopal Church. The last General Convention directed the primary focus of the Commission to be a study of the issue of racism and HIV. One aspect of that study has been to conduct open hearings around the country, listening to those affected and infected with HIV. The Bishop of Honduras, The Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, invited us to visit his country in the aftermath of hurricane Mitch. The visit fit with our broader mission. While Honduras has about seventeen percent of the population of Central America, it has fifty percent of the AIDS cases in Central America. Honduras has some 12,000 cases of HIV with a total population smaller than that of Georgia.
The Honduran trip was a profound experience for me. I can not say that it was "life-changing" – HIV/AIDS was life changing for me years ago. Yet the trip was incredibly powerful and I continue to see images of it floating through my mind – images that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Rugged mountains surrounded by jungle greenery: Incredible contrasts in terrain as the airplane descended to the airport runway. Tropical heat and humidity: A blast of heat as soon as I exited the airplane and proceeded down the passageway into the airport terminal. Aftermath of a natural disaster: Washed out roads with cardboard and corrugated tin shacks housing hundreds of people. Seeing stains on a wall and realizing it was the high water marks from the floodwaters created by hurricane Mitch. Reaching the hotel and realizing with great relief that it was much more than I expected – literally a country club atmosphere, casino, fine restaurants, and strong air conditioning! Remembering not to drink the water: Brushing my teeth with bottled water.
Seeing the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd: The road at the entrance was completely gone, washed away by floodwaters, and now in the process of being reconstructed. Hearing the sound of children’s laughter: The students of the Cathedral School gathered in the nave of the Cathedral to greet us, ask us questions, and thank us for coming to their home.
Meeting HIV face to face: Three men in their late twenties and a woman in her early thirties sharing with us the reality of living with HIV in Honduras. There are no HIV drugs for adults. The government makes promises, but does not come through. Emphasis is placed on prevention as much as possible – not on caring for those already sick. The cost of anti-virals is beyond the reach of all but the rich. Diagnostic testing equipment taken for granted in the United States is non-existent in Honduras. People are fired from their jobs if it they are found to be HIV-positive. Others are refused employment on the basis of their HIV status – United States companies doing business in Honduras engaging in obvious discrimination due to HIV. Hiding HIV status and sexual orientation due to ignorance and bigotry – unable to live your life honestly.
Feeling the pain of survivor guilt: Sitting across the table from three fresh-faced, hopeful young adults, desperate for the drugs they need to survive. Knowing that I have at my disposal all the treatment possibilities I need to combat the virus in my own body, any anti-viral drug I need, any protease inhibitor, any diagnostic test. The discomfort that comes from the realization that I take for granted what is only a dream for these four people and thousands of others. Marveling at the openness and curiosity of four people who made an instantaneous connection with me the moment I told them I was living with HIV. Seeing their faces literally light up the moment I said the words: I’m living with HIV. A bond formed, though we communicated only through translators and are likely to never lay eyes on each other again. Feeling discomfort as they plaintively and hopefully ask if I had brought any HIV drugs with me. Wanting, out of a desperate need to help, to hand them what I had brought, yet knowing that I had to give the precious few pills I had packed in my luggage to the doctor to insure those who needed them most got them. Answering their questions about my own T-cell counts and viral load statistics and wondering if my apparent good health was a source of hope for them or if it was a source of further despair. Feeling both frustration and relief that the meeting was over: I never anticipated that my emotions would be so raw – I was worn out.
Visiting a home for children living with AIDS: None of them knew what was wrong with them. They were aware that they all took medicines, but they didn’t know why. Watching shy smiles, bright eyes, hearing giggles and laughter as they engaged the hearts of what had to be an odd assortment of folks who had come to visit. Engaging in a game of "low-fives" with a six year old boy who never quite understood why his young hands were not quite as tough as the "old" dude’s hands he kept slapping – did he realize that his shining eyes and sly grin had stolen my heart? Did I hide the pain of wondering if he and his housemates would ever grow up? The tears flow now – thank God they didn’t then.
Marveling at the devotion of a group of upper middle class women to the plight of these children: So much love to share. Feeling the joy and the frustration of a child who turned out to be HIV negative: Because of his new status, he would have to leave the home. What would become of him? Experiencing sheer delight when the bishop hung his pectoral cross around a child’s neck for a picture – no one’s heart was safe from being stolen! Leaving took a long time – who didn’t want us to leave the most?
Visiting an AIDS hospice for adults: If only for a fleeting second, am I seeing my own future? Sharing the obvious joy of a nurse in telling us that a fair number of their patients have regained enough of their health to leave: How can that be when there are no drugs to give them? God must be at work in this place. Listening to the story of waiting out the hurricane as the flood waters rose: A pick ax had to be used to knock holes in the walls of the compound to let the water drain out. A garden was lost – the buildings survived. The ministry survived. We leave, noting the vigilante (guard) with his rifle slung over his shoulder – ironic that people must be kept out by force.
A home for girls, run under the direction of the bishop’s wife: Some were orphans, some rescued from the streets, some taken from abusive home situations – all clearly loved and cared for, regardless of their reason for being there. An incredible facility: New, bright, airy – a home. A little girl takes my hand and pulls me along as we tour her home: her room, her stuffed animals, a cat that consents to being pulled by its tail into a child’s hug, another cat that willingly serves as a bean bag in the gentle hands of a loving child. A dog that wags all over and obviously has never met a stranger. Classrooms: This is a school as well as a home. Beyond the compound wall: A small village of shacks constructed of any and all available materials. Miraculously its inhabitants took apart their homes and moved them out of the way of the hurricane! The contrast within and without the walls is incredible, painful.
A two-year-old girl is diagnosed with HIV: The other girls will not allow her to be sent to the home for children with HIV. They claim her as family. She must remain with them: Unconditional love – only from the heart of a child. She is quite ill today – severe bronchial infection, pneumonia – yet the attention of her visitors seems to perk her up. I ask to hold her – she and I have something in common. She stares into my face. Her open and vulnerable expression makes me think she realizes our shared "problem." I can’t help but feel the connection – and the pain. Later I’m told she usually will not go to a stranger: I’m convinced she knows our connection. Thank you, God, for these little miracles in my life. We leave: Again, the vigilante at the gate with his rifle.
Another AIDS hospice: Brand new, spotless, pretty – run by Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity. We tour it: Fewer than half of its beds are occupied – the demand is not particularly great at the moment. A room toward the rear houses several men who obviously have only a few days left. Death seems more frequent here. Is it too clean, too pretty? I couldn’t be at home here. The ministry is vital. God is here – not sure what is missing – something is, perhaps only for me.
A hurricane refugee settlement: A gymnasium surrounded by tent-homes created from tarpaulins and poles and ropes. Children come to the fence to stare: They know the Bishop. Over three thousand people live here, their homes destroyed by the hurricane. Dirt paths and beaten down grass: Tent ropes everywhere. The smell of open fire cooking: it looks tasty! No one appears to be underfed. People seem relatively content: Is it resignation or despair or having learned to cope with now in hopes of the future? Children follow the bishop and us like we are the Pied Piper. Most seem happy – a few wee ones stand naked and giggling as they watch us – even near sundown it is still very warm. The lack of privacy must be awful: But it is shelter. The settlement is remarkably odor free – the only unpleasant smells come from the immediate vicinity of the outhouses. We tour the gymnasium: "homes" have been fashioned from cardboard, sheets, blankets, whatever is available. Less privacy in here than outside: Heat is almost stifling. One family apparently managed to salvage their dining table and chairs: It looks both normal and out of place at the same time. It’s much more obvious in here: Survivors must cling to what few possessions they have left or have re-accumulated. We make our good-byes: The hospitality has been remarkable and incredibly gracious. There is great human dignity in this place. As we leave, I again notice the vigilante with his rifle: to keep in or to keep out?
We gather for our evening meal. I am suddenly very grateful for a hotel room and a hot meal. I am also grateful for the numbness that is keeping much of what I have experienced at a manageable distance - until I can process it. (Can I?)
Sunday services at the Cathedral: There is joy and excitement – even in the somberness of the Lenten season. The music is infectious – I understand not a word of the hymns! Thank God for our "common" prayer – even in Spanish I could follow the service just by the position of the paragraphs on the page. The Gospel is read in English and Spanish. Both bishops preach: one in English, the other translating into Spanish. The exchange of the Peace is a joyous riot of activity: everybody greets everybody else – it’s clearly a big family with many children. The wondrous mystery of Communion is the same no matter what the language. The service was the appropriate symbolic end of the visit. I realize now that we were welcomed into and made part of the community. The grace of God abounded all around us. The familiar words: I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, homeless and you took me in – new meaning, new power.
Heading home: There were bodies of water that did not appear to be in the proper locations. I noticed muddy, wet areas and what seemed to be the debris from the hurricane’s destructive power: parts of homes and buildings? What had been fields of crops? Then Honduras began to fade in the distance. What an experience – but I was glad to be going home: I needed my bed. Images of Honduras: enough for a lifetime.
March 17, 1999
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