Lent and Resurrection in Mozambique
By Kimberly Burge
Rebecca Vander Meulen experiences Lent—and resurrection—all year round in the remote reaches of northern Mozambique. “We live in a Lenten world of death and suffering. But in the midst of AIDS’s Lenten character, there are glimmers of Easter, of life emerging amidst death,” she wrote in an email update to Bread for the World.
Rebecca serves in the Anglican Diocese of Niassa, which covers an area of 175,000 square miles, larger than California. There, 300 congregations have a total of 60,000 members; 95 percent of them live in rural areas.
In Mozambique, 1.5 million adults and children are infected with HIV. The church created Equipas de SIDA, (“AIDS Teams” in Portuguese) to reach out to those in their communities suffering from the disease. But stigma against AIDS still lingers. The teams were nicknamed “Teams of Death.”
“We realized that our goal is to promote life, not AIDS. And not just survival, but real, deep, abundant life. Life in the body, life in the spirit, life in community. So we formally changed our name to Equipas da Vidas, which means ‘Life Teams,’” Rebecca recalled.
Each team plans and manages its own activities, from AIDS education to bringing food to people too sick to work their farms. “This is a strategic move. It is at the local level where people know best their own community’s needs, what activities can be sustained.” About half of the diocese’s 300 churches now have Life Teams.
Originally from Charlottesville, VA, Rebecca spent two years at Bread for the World’s Washington, DC, office, from 1999-2001. She began as the first Art Simon Intern in the government relations department working on U.S. hunger issues. The following year, she became policy associate and switched to international work. She left Bread to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Emory University in Atlanta, and spent a summer working in Mozambique on improved sanitation efforts. She is now closing in on her sixth year of living full-time in Mozambique.
When she first arrived, very few people were willing to be tested for HIV. They had good reasons. Communities and even families often abandoned people known to be HIV positive. Antiretroviral (ARV) treatment was practically nonexistent in the entire country, much less this most isolated province. A positive test forewarned of a lonely death. Why bother testing at all? But things have changed in five years. The U.S. foreign assistance program PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) is now providing ARVs to 100,000 Mozambicans.
Rebecca recalls a man she met at one diocesan-wide training. She accompanied several participants to an HIV testing center. Many came to her afterwards, elated at their negative results. And then a quiet young man approached Rebecca and showed her his piece of paper: HIV positive.
“I hadn’t gotten to know Armando (a pseudonym) well in the first part of the conference. But we talked that night. He spoke with evident joy of his two children, and of great pride that his 10-year old is already in third grade—a significant accomplishment in his rural community.
“We also talked about his active role in his church, and the potentially powerful impact he could make in that community, speaking as a person living positively. With the sobering news that he has a virus in his veins, Armando is more equipped to be a prophetic voice in his community.”
With help from Rebecca, and with funding from U.S. foreign assistance, Equipas da Vidas are discovering and nurturing many more leaders like Armando, and ARVs are keeping them alive. Christ is risen indeed.