Not long ago, my boss and I were sitting in a meeting. Unfortunately, I can't remember who the meeting was with -- a donor, a potential donor, a journalist, or a corporate big wig -- but what I do remember is what he/she said:
"For us in South Africa, AIDS is not a cause. It's the backdrop in which we live."
That statement embodied a thought I had been trying to verbalize for a long time but had never found the words. But since coming to RSA, that is what has changed for me. AIDS went from being a cause to being the wallpaper -- cracked, peeling and faded.
For South Africans and those of us blessed to live along side them, HIV and AIDS is the context in which we live. With somewhere between 5.4 and 5.9 million South Africans living with HIV (around 12% of the population), chances are that most of us know somebody or somebodies living with the disease. Chances are we have known or will know someone dying of AIDS. And even those of us who don't, AIDS affects our lives and changes them in a thousand indirect ways. The same is true of TB and poverty.
Prior to coming to RSA, fighting extreme poverty, making sure that life-saving treatment was distributed evenly, ensuring access to drinking water, AIDS -- these were causes that I advocated for and gave of my time and my finances to ensure. Now, the change in context means loving on and being loved by beautiful children who happen to be HIV positive. It means occasionally being the one to distribute their antiretrovirals. It means knowing people and being friends with people who have less than a dollar a day to provide the basic necessities to keep their family afloat. It means having personal stories of watching people waste away to their death.
I think that when Jesus quoted rabbinical law saying, “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11, Deuteronomy 15:11), he meant poverty is the context – the backdrop surrounding our life. In the midst of the beautiful aroma filling the air, Jesus challenged the false generosity of the onlookers. Yes, the jar of perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, but that wasn’t the point. The woman anointing Jesus’s feet saw both His humanity and His lordship. Jesus recognized and honoured her for this. The disciples and the other onlookers saw “the cause” spilled across the floor, wasted. Jesus reminded them that it wasn’t about “the cause,” it was about Him.
Distance makes “causes” easy. They make labels like “AIDS orphan” and “extreme poverty” easy. But when you are forced to deal with the humanity of the cause, labels become harder to choke down.
Before, I could easily list the “causes” I supported, rattling off statistics and numbers to go along with each. Not that the causes in themselves where bad, but in the name of the cause, I often lost sight of the people the cause supported. I lost sight of their humanness. And perhaps I was caught up in the trend of supporting causes.
But now, as I interact with and pray for the children at Oasis Haven, I hear them saying, I am not a cause. I am a child. I have a hope and a future bright with possibilities. I need a family to help me get there. I need you to love me and do all you can to make my adoption a reality. I need you to value me. Because I am not a cause, I am a child.
That’s the challenge and the difference between supporting a cause and making it contextual in your own life – hearing “I am not a cause, I am…”