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Christmas for the HIV positive, affected and at-risk

The author of this Christmas piece, the Rev. Canon Dr Gideon B. Byamugisha, came to know of his HIV positive status in 1992 after losing his dear wife, Kellen, to an abrupt pneumonia linked to HIV. Currently he is goodwill ambassador on HIV & AIDS (Christian Aid) and scholar-in-residence at the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, UK.

21 December 2010

Christmas for the HIV positive, affected and at-risk persons, families, communities and nations of faith

This year on 25 December, many of those of us who were lucky to make it onto mother earth and to grow and are lucky to still be alive (God willing) will celebrate once again the Christmas Story of the birth of a child who, within a generation of his birth, came to be hailed as "Son Of God", whose followers (including myself) speak of as "Saviour" and "Lord" and whose arrival brought with it the news of justice and peace to the world.

“Do not be afraid”, an angel of the Lord told a bunch of shepherds that had been grazing sheep nearby and were watching over them at night; “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today, in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 10-11; The Leadership Bible NIV)

But what does that good news story of peace, justice and joy mean to some one struggling with the bad news of an HIV positive diagnosis?

What does it mean to someone who is struggling under the pain and weight of an illness that is not responding to any of the treatment regimens they have faithfully and dutifully taken as tablets, swallowed as capsules or braved as injections?

What does the Christmas story mean to the family whose loved one has just "passed on" after a long struggle with illness?

What does the joy of Christmas mean to someone who is staring blank in the future after being turned away at the AIDS Clinic near-by because the medicine supplies to help repair their damaged cells and keep the virus in check are dried up and the clinic staff have been told to put people on "a waiting list" only.

What does the Christmas joy mean to someone who is still nursing a hurt feeling of rejection and a deep sense of betrayal because they have just been abandoned and left  to die (alone and frightened) by their spouse, family, community or government supposed to care?

What will the peace, joy and justice story of Christmas mean to people facing the pain of stigma, humiliation and discrimination in their places of work, worship, residence, education or business because of their HIV positive status?

What will Christmas be like for to those who will be on their own for the first time having been orphaned or widowed by AIDS (or any other life-taking and life-wasting illness/ reality)?

And what will Christmas be like for a country-at-risk whose proposal to the Global Fund, PEPFAR (and/or to other global funding agencies) has just been turned down either because there is no enough money to cover all the eligible and deserving applicants or just because the proposal is not “good enough”?

Our believing in the Christmas joy, justice and peace story (as HIV positive, affected, widowed, orphaned, vulnerable and at-risk persons, families, communities and nations with faith) does not mean that we minimize, deny, hide or even try to spiritualize and glorify the reality of our pain, anxiety, grief, loss, and confusion due to the above described life scenarios and other similarly painful ones.

Neither does it mean over-looking nor down-playing the life-wasting injustice, stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and mis-action that still subject us to preventable and controllable infections, illnesses, deaths and bereavements.

Rather, our joy in the Christmas story springs first from our thankfulness to still being alive to life (no matter how wretched, painful, sorrowful and grievous).

Our joy in the Christmas story is in our celebration of the breakthroughs in the God-given and God-inspired knowledge and science that are now technically available to support us in our struggle to halt, reverse and significantly overcome new HIV infections, transmissions, illnesses and deaths even as we struggle to perfect our policies, messages, budgets, skills and practical actions to fully utilize that knowledge and science.

Our Joy in Christmas is our ability to celebrate and enjoy the life, the family, the community, the friendships , the love , the care, the support and the hope (in the life now and  beyond) that is still there for us to enjoy, to celebrate and to look forward to (however minimally flickering it may be).

Our Christmas joy is in our knowledge, discovery and hope that we can enjoy what is still there to enjoy, change what is still there to change and entrust to the God-With-Us (Emanuel) all that still baffles us, frustrates us, intimidates us, pains us and terrifies us.

For us, belief in the Christmas story is not belief in some past event in history. Rather, Christmas invites us to share the good news of God’s love, grace and compassion and to participate in the joyful, demanding and liberating call into God’s salvation story, mission and agenda for safer, healthier, more peaceful and more fulfilling living for all persons, families, communities, nations and continents-irrespective of their geographical location, colour, religious creed, political persuasion or any other self-identity differentiating characteristic.

Our faith in the Christmas story makes us believe and trust that life (however challenging in crib-like, inn-like and manger-like situations) need to be handled like Joseph and Mary did: With love, care, compassion and dignity.

Our faith in the Christmas story (as HIV positive , affected, orphaned, widowed, vulnerable and at- risk persons, families, communities, nations and continents) does not leave us indifferent , resigned and fatalistic to that what happened, to what happening now or to that which will happen. Rather, our faith in the Christmas story puts us in a position of creative tension in mission: fully aware of our pain and sorrow but full of faith, expectation and hope (like the pregnant Mary, the baffled Joseph and the elderly Simeon) in the midst of the difficulties, realities and needs in each day, week, month and year of our existence.

Like others on our common globe, we share in the grandeur and the misery of life. But unlike many others who may not have the type and level of faith and hope we hold unto; we do not experience our pain and suffering as natural processes that have to be or as punishments we have to endure.  Nor do we submit or resign to them in despair and defeat. No! For us, the Christmas story brings in us a unique dynamism, a liberating element and a redeeming courage inspired by the One who came to be born like us and with us, live like us and with us, laugh like us and with us, suffer and cry like us and with us, die like us and with us and resurrect like us and with us!

For us, the name "Emanuel" gives us an extra armory against AIDS and a key leader in the global race to save families, communities and nations from the HIV grip.

This leader (whose birth day we celebrate every Christmas ) encourages , motivates and inspires us "never to give up" in doing more and doing better in the mission task of improving, saving and transforming lives up to the last bit of our energy and breath.

For us, living and enjoying Christmas means cultivating a compassionate and loving care for our battered , shattered and tattered lives and growing a cheerful , courageous and hopeful attitude towards the renewal and transformation of our existence as persons, families, communities, nations and continents created and loved by  the God-With-Us: Emanuel.

For us, faith in the Christmas event means living in a world of patient hope, active faith and unwavering commitment against the injustice wrought and made worse by AIDS.

For us, patience, love and hope in Christmas mean identifying with, believing in and praying to God’s appointed redeemer who removed the stigma and the sting in our life by sharing it himself and succeeding against it.

"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today, in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord"

The author of this Christmas piece, the Rev. Canon Dr Gideon B. Byamugisha, came to know of his HIV positive status in 1992 after losing his dear wife, Kellen, to an abrupt pneumonia linked to HIV.

He later married Pamela (herself widowed by AIDS at the young age of 24) and is blessed (thanks to HIV prevention science) with three children. He has devoted his life, energy, ministry and friendships to fighting AIDS related stigma that leads to discrimination, inaction and mis-action: making it difficult for families, communities and nations  to overcome new HIV infections, transmissions and  AIDS deaths that would otherwise be preventable and controllable.

Currently he is goodwill ambassador on HIV & AIDS (Christian Aid) and scholar-in-residence at the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, UK.

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