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Gracia Violeta Ross presentation

21 février 2006

Plenary on the Assembly theme

Ms Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga from Bolivia is an activist for human rights of people living with HIV and AIDS

Grace for Grace
Testimony of a pastor's daughter

Gracia

My name has a meaning. Gracia in Spanish means Grace. My parents named me Gracia due to their understanding of "God's grace"; that wonderful attribute of God which enabled human beings to be saved. This essay shows how I (Gracia) received the Grace of God.

When I was a child, I had many problems at school because my classmates used to make fun of me with my name saying "Gracias Gracia", in Spanish the words "thanks" (gracias) and "grace" (gracia) are different only in the "s".

 

Every time I had to say my name was Gracia, I had to explain people about the grace of God and the reason why I had such a different name, I had to declare I was a Christian and I was not ready to do so with every single person I met. Therefore I decided to use my second name: Violeta, which means "violet", the flower. This name was easier to remember and did not cause so many questions.

 

Nevertheless, the difference between Gracia and Violeta was not only in the name but also in the attitudes and the kind of life Gracia and Violeta had. Within the church I was Gracia, living a "good" life like "the daughter of a pastor" that I am. Violeta was a rebellious teenager doing her will and ignoring God's commandments. As Violeta I did all things Gracia was not allowed to do. This situation ended with me having two lives.

 

Within the church

I was born in a protestant family. My father is a spiritual leader; both my father and my mother have founded churches in Bolivia. I grew up in the church. For a while, the church was based in my garage while we did not have a place to meet. I used to attend Sunday school, and learnt about Abraham, Joseph and Jesus and also heard about Samson and his mistake involving a woman who did not belong to God's people.

 

Without being completely conscious, I developed two kind of lives. Gracia used to attend church every single Sunday making a "performance" for other people, showing that everything was good. Violeta was a different person and I can say as Violeta, I did not belong to God's family at all. My life was being divided in two attitudes, and none of them was real nor complete. I was playing with God and the flesh at the same time. This game can never have a good end. I was not a real Christian, I was just someone else in the church, using another seat.

 

Bitterness roots

I do not pretend to justify myself but the abyss between my life and God was growing deeper every time. When I decided to do my will I never thought I could end up my days having HIV. I was not aware of the great risk I was at.

This history of rebellion started with my inability to forgive, and the bitterness I let grow up in my heart because I was not able to forgive my older sister when she became the fiancé of the boy I used to like. Since that moment I started to think all Christian people were a fake and decide to have a boyfriend out of the church.

My bitterness made me feel so much the need of being loved, I needed so much to have someone to love in order to show my sister that even though, she was with the boy I liked, I had many others and did not need him.

This career to get more boyfriends than my sister was my death sentence. I was looking for love, for someone to take care of me, someone to understand me, to be loyal, never lie, to support me, to be faithful, to speak the truth… I was looking in a man for what only God can give! So I never found it. Men realized I needed love and took advantage of my need. Men can love but they will ask a price for it, they will ask for the body, the integrity, they ask to have the temple of Holy Spirit. They asked for my body and I accepted.

I kept going to church every Sunday but my heart was far from God. I went into university to study anthropology even though my father disagreed with this choice. While at university I began to drink alcohol and met friends who used to smoke marijuana and other drugs.

 

My family suffered a lot during this time, because they were worried about the people I had made friends with, they felt that they were bad influences for me. They could not understand how was I able to make these decisions to go out with these people, because I had been brought up knowing God, and this was not how they had brought me up.

 

I remember nowadays, with tears in my eyes, how much my mother and father, my sisters and little brother suffered. They tried to rescue me, they locked the doors so that I did not escape, they prayed for long nights when I did not arrive home, they forbade me the access to the telephone so that I would not be able to contact those friends who took me to drink alcohol; finally they begged me to change and to remember God, crying so many times they told me to abandon that life but I become more rebellious each time they tried to talk to me.

 

I asked them to forgive me and they did, but I can not forget all the pain I caused. I understand now that my parents are the first authority settled by God himself, the rules they have were there in order to protect my life.

 

My life far from God

I learned I had to remain a virgin until I got married. My parents wanted me to marry someone from the church, but I decided to date boys outside of the church. I also decided that I wanted to play sex with them. I knew about the severe risk of getting pregnant outside of marriage, and I knew what shame this would bring on my father, especially because he was such a prestigious leader within the church. Therefore I had to find information on my own, regarding issues such as avoiding pregnancy. No one in the church spoke to me about sex or sexuality and all the problems that these issues raise.

I never got pregnant but I was unaware of the risk of AIDS, and at that time I did not realize how much of risk I was actually at of contracting HIV. I do not know how long I could have kept living this kind of life. I did not care about anything. I did not care about my parents' suffering or about my family's credibility within the church, I just wanted to do my will.

 

My chosen life style had bitter consequences. One night I was coming back home from a party. I did not have any money to get a taxi home, because I had spent all my money on the ticket for the party. I went out every Saturday, without my parents permission, they had no idea that I was going out! Honestly I only wanted to dance, and have a good time with my friends, but unfortunately wherever there is music, there is also always alcohol, at least in Latin America. That very night I crept out of my bedroom via the balcony. It was getting really late at the party, it was 2 AM, and I wanted to go home.

 

I asked my friends to walk me home but they wanted to stay at the party a little while longer. I begged them to walk me home, and because they all wanted to stay, they chose one person to do it. On the way home this ‘friend' told me that he wanted to have sex with me but I asked him why he was saying this, and I knew it was because he was drunk, if he had been sober then he would not have asked me that. He was angry because I said ‘No' and he left me alone, right there, and I was left to walk home alone, it was only a short walk to my house from there.

 

My sister used to help me escaping and getting in again, but that night she was not home and had not read the note I left her to open me at 2:30 am. I decided to go and look for her in a pub she used to attend. I was really drunk and did not realize that two men were following me. They hit me and took me to an alleyway and they both raped me.

 

I could not believe this was happening to me, I was so close to home. I felt my heart was being destroyed. I was a child of God; I thought that He had a duty to protect me. I told my older sister about what had happened, but I never told my parents, I did not want to see them suffer. I was traumatized for a time. I did not want to have any man near to me. What happened should have taught me a lesson. However, I did not learn from my mistakes.

 

"My son do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin (…) these man lie in wait for their own blood."1

 

"You have made my days a mere handbreath…"

 

"You have made my days a mere handbreath, the span of my years is as nothing before you"2

 

After this experience of sexual assault I thought nothing worse than that could ever happen to me. I was wrong. Even though I had experienced a great pain with this assault I did not change my life-style. I used to think that nothing worse could happen now, so why would I try to take care? Why? Everything was lost already, I had screwed it up already.

 

In March 2000 I went to a little town in my country, I was preparing my research for a thesis degree about the availability of small loans for small enterprises of peasants in Bolivia. I was bitten by a little insect and the bite got infected, I was getting very tired quickly and was having some nosebleeds. My family and I thought I had malaria because this zone is endemic for this illness. I went to a specialized laboratory to take a test to find out if I had contracted malaria or another similar illness, and my older sister told them to test for HIV as well.

 

The other tests were negative, however my HIV test came back positive. I could not believe it; I had not had more sexual experiences than most of my school friends, in fact I had less than them! I was simply a girl from university discovering her sexuality. I never injected drugs and I was not a sex worker. My first thought was how to tell my parents. What was going to happen to me? When was I going to die? How could I face the people and their prejudices about AIDS? How could I ever tell people from church that I was HIV positive?

 

I cried a lot and I was sad and depressed for a very long time. Finally one day my sister told me that I had to tell my parents. How could I tell them? We had never talked about sexuality, where was I going to find the strength to tell them "I have AIDS" ? The thought of telling them tortured me for many months.

 

I decided to tell them. I thought that they were going to reject me. I thought that they were going to throw me out of the house. I wrote a letter to them and I sent it with my sister. Meanwhile I was staying at a friend's. I decided that if my parents rejected me, life would not be worth living. When I saw them they were astonished with what I had told them in the letter. I will never forget their tear-stained faces, they had one question written all over their faces: why did this happen to our child?

 

My family did not reject me at all, they received me with open arms, they told me they did not want to know what happened, they just wanted to be with me and support me until the last day. The Bible says:

 

"As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him"3

 

I begun to understand this proof of love was a reflection of God's love in my family. This love was just one of the gifts God has prepared for me.

 

"Let the bones you have crushed rejoice..."4

In my anguish due to this HIV positive diagnosis, I looked for God again. He gave me freedom from blame and shame, I found peace, forgiveness, hope and eternal life. My Heavenly Father consoled me in the worst time of my life, He showed me promises of eternal life and strength to go on:

 

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me"5.

 

The Lord used different brothers and sisters in the faith to bring healthiness and consolation to the pain in my heart. He showed me nothing could take me away from His incomparable love, neither all the evil I had committed, nor the virus, nor the death:

 

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" 6.

Not even AIDS can separate me from the love of God!

 

 

The sacrifice Jesus made in the cross was enough to save me and enough to forgive my sins and those of people living with HIV. So much grace and mercy were difficult to believe! The Lord is faithful to me even though I was unfaithful! He had a mission for my life, even based on my mistakes!

 

 

"Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man..."7

I reconciled with God, as king Hezekiah did8, I humbled in God's presence, I repented from my sins, I asked for forgiveness and I gave God what I still had of my broken life. He forgave me, restored me, healed my body, my soul and my spirit.

I started to study the Bible again. I was not the same person any more, I needed to know what God demanded from me now.

I have met other People Living With HIV and AIDS (PLWHA). The pain for their souls and bodies is terrible: they die alone, abandoned by their own families, without having a light of hope.

I discovered I was a privileged among those living with HIV. I have a family who support me, they do not judge or discriminate me. I am healthy, alive and have eternal life. The Lord told me to work as volunteer with these people.

I wanted to find what God said about illnesses like AIDS. I found that the judging role is only for God. I understood I had to put aside my prejudices if I really wanted to work with these people, specially when we are talking about sex workers and gay people.

I also discovered God gave us examples of what to do in such situations. I was impressed by Jesus' attitudes with people with leprosy. Meanwhile the whole society and synagogues treated them with discrimination (physical, symbolic and social discrimination), having special rules for them, asking them to use a bell to announce their presence; Jesus touched them, ate9 with them and healed them, both physical and spiritually:

"A man with leprosy came to him and begged, "if you are willing, you can make me clean" Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing", he said. "Be clean !"10.

"...he has given us new birth into a living hope..."11

I decide it was not important to know how much time I would live. Each day lived would be for God's glory.

The Lord had a mission of hope for persons living with HIV and AIDS. God has designed a mission based in my mistakes! His mercy and grace cover my broken promises and my failures. He did not reject me but used my experiences to console in order that I console other people suffering.

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..." (1 Peter 1.3).

God had a living hope for persons living with HIV and AIDS.

Meanwhile most of people despite and judge us,

the divine response is plenty of forgiveness and living hope.

 

 

Together with other coworkers, I decided to found a self-help group for PLWHAs. We work as volunteers in prevention, advocacy, assistance for the ill ones, information for families, society, community-based organizations and the government. The Lord has blessed our work, we have been chosen as a "successful experience on HIV and AIDS" by the Pan American Health Organization. God used us to bring hope to suffering people.

"The AIDS crisis is the harvest God gave us "12

Between the plans God had, was the role of being a messenger to the Bolivian evangelical churches.

On September 2002 I was invited to the Conference on Integral Mission and HIV/ AIDS held by the Micah Network in Chiang Mai - Thailand. I met Leah Mutala in this conference. Leah is an African woman working as volunteer taking care of the orphans left by AIDS epidemic. She taught me that God takes the cause of the widow and the orphan, God is a Father to the fatherless13. These are only some of the consequences the AIDS epidemic brings for societies. The most important thing Leah taught me was that "the AIDS crisis is the harvest God gave us":

"Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest"14.

 

 

This is the message I received for evangelical churches:

Let's open our eyes and see, the harvest is ready.

The AIDS crisis is the harvest God gave us,

we will crop for eternal life

 

 

 

 

"I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done"15

It is not important for me to know how long will I live any more, because I know, that if I die soon or later, I will be with my Heavenly Father for the eternity.

The time I shall live in this world,

I will proclaim the wonders God has done

in my life and the way his great love

and mercy reached me having grace in his eyes;

God taught me the meaning of my name in my own flesh.

 

 

"This church that I love…"

God had even more beautiful things prepared for me. I am a public speaker on HIV and AIDS, I am leader of the community-based organization REDBOL (Bolivian Network of PLWHA). I am on TV very often and it is not possible to keep the secrecy anymore.

So my family and I decided to tell the church about my HIV status. We were frightened abpit the possibility of being expelled from the church, specially considering that my father currently is the pastor of the church. There is a lack of information about HIV in Bolivia and very often we saw attitudes of discrimination. We prayed a lot but I must confess we did not trust God.

We chose one Sunday to tell the church and since the moment I started speaking I could not avoid the tear drops in my eyes. I was so repentant for causing that pain, for being a bad testimony for my church, for the shame I brought to my father and my whole family. I had a fight in my soul, sometimes the fear was bigger than my need to confess my sin.

God had prepared a loving church who supported us since the moment they knew about my HIV status. My dear brothers and sisters pray for me every week, asking God that I can be finally healed. They support me during my trips by praying and also in my speeches and my family with words of hope. This church that I love is a gift from God.

Nowadays

My viral load (number of virus in blood) is 15000 copies/ml16. Currently I do not take any antiretroviral medicine. These medicines are very expensive (USD1500/month) and no one in Bolivia has enough to pay this kind of money, and still have enough left over to live. The HIV virus reproduces itself every 37 hours into my body. A medical diagnosis would say that I am a weaker person every day, but God supports me; He said to me:

"My Grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong"17.


References

  • Arthur, Kay (1988) Señor, sana mis heridas. Florida: Editorial Vida

 

  • Train, Felipe (2002) "Las parejas ¿qué hacemos con ellas? Conferencia dictada en La Paz el 15 de Febrero de 2002.

 

  • White, John (2000) Hacia la Sanidad Sexual. Buenos Aires: Certeza.


1 Proverbs 1. 15-18. NVI

2 Psalm 39.5, NVI

3 Psalm 103.13 NVI.

4 Psalm 51.8b, NVI.

5 Psalm 23.4, NVI.

6 Romans 8.37-39, NVI.

7 Mark 1.41b, NVI.

8 2 Kings 20, NVI.

9 "While he was in Betany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper…" Mark 14.3, NVI.

10 Mark 1.40 and 41, NVI.

11 1 Peter 1.3 b, NVI.

12 Leah Mutala, Zimbawe 2002.

13 Psalmo 68.5; 146.9, NVI.

14 John 4..35, NVI.

15 Psalm 118.17, NVI.

16 A PLWHA can die with over a million copies/ml

17 2 Corinthians 12:.9-10 NVI.