Mennonite workers witnessed the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in southern Africa during the 1980s and ’90s. Nearly a third of adults of reproductive age became HIV-positive, leaving an entire society staggering under the weight of grief and loss.
In the course of that experience, we wondered how we had missed preparation for dealing with suffering — and helplessness — on such a vast scale.
Here are some reflections on those ghastly experiences:
— Pandemic blankets a community with a sense of helplessness and despondency. As the losses build, the community can fall into a demoralized state, with compassion and conscience lapsing into paralysis and indifference. This is a hazard for leaders, who are tempted to resign from the struggle.
The civil rights mantra, “Keep hope alive,” is a critical message. Courageous storytelling, song and acts of mercy are powerful instruments.
— Beware the impulse to softpedal the truth. This way of avoiding brutal reality is death-dealing. Leaders who trade in such coin forfeit trust.
— The question is raised: Is this heaven’s judgment? Counterfeit teachers will answer in the affirmative. People who pay no attention to those messages will nonetheless wonder in the dead of night. This searching query must be addressed.
— Pandemic is a democratizer. It touches all without regard to status, gender, religion or race. COVID-19 may well have its cruelest effect on certain vulnerable demographic groups, but, like earthquake and tsunami, it reorders social convention by reminding us we all stand on the same fragile ground. We are profoundly kin to all. This is a massive correction to the way we view the world in normal times. It unlocks the wells of caring and mercy.
— Nothing speaks more powerfully than presence at a time when feelings of abandonment pervade the community. Central to the gospel is the notion of incarnation. Has the moment come to assert this as practice in the face of apparent withdrawal by friends, family, neighbors, even God? (The nature of this presence deserves to be the subject of creative discerning.)
Of his classic story, “The Plague,” Albert Camus said it concerned “the redeeming plague.” Amid such dehumanizing events, contrary to all expectation and logic, something like sainthood — transformation — happens.
These troubles may lead us to inquire of the Scriptures with renewed earnestness, inspire us to searching prayer and rouse us to acts of compassion that surprise even ourselves.
Jonathan Larson, of Durham, N.C., served with the General Conference Mennonite Church in Botswana from 1981 to 1994. His wife, Mary Kay, was an epidemiologist in the battle with HIV/ AIDS at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.