A week ago at church we had a guest speaker. I listened intently as a young brother, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, related a story about a trip he took to South Africa last year, and, in particular, his travels with a local pastor visiting housebound AIDS patients. In clear voice and vivid detail, he painted a picture of a tiny tin shack, its concrete floor barely warmed by scraps of carpet and cloth. The shack was home to two sisters, and while the pastor made small talk with them, our church speaker, Micah Gilmer, took in the glaring contrast between the girls.
"The young girl devastated by AIDS looked like a living skeleton, her sunken eyes staring out of a painfully thin face," he said. "Her arms were tiny, and she looked as if her heart was about to break. Her sister was strong and healthy, her face still full of joy, though obviously worn by the cares of life. I was even more shocked and heartbroken when the pastor told me that these two girls were, in fact, identical twins.
"As we prepared to part," Gilmer continued, "I searched desperately for some word of encouragement. I don't remember what I said, but I am sure it was woefully inadequate to communicate my heart. As I looked into my own soul, I decided that I was going to do something."
Gilmer's decision became the Impact AIDS Walkathon. At our church, he talked the talk, telling the congregation of his and other students' plans to literally walk the walk--27 miles of it on April 13--between the bell towers at UNC-Chapel Hill and at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Impact is a nationwide group, started by Gilmer's father, Charles, as a sub-ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ with a particular focus on African-American students. Ambitious as it is, the AIDS Walkathon is part of an even larger effort called Operation Sunrise Africa, in which African church leaders have invited/challenged African Americans to participate in what amounts to a massive spiritual repatriation to the motherland. (Proceeds from the Walkathon will be divided evenly between Operation Sunrise and the AIDS Foundation of South Africa.)
Impact hopes to inspire (and pay for) travels to southern and eastern Africa by more than 2,000 African-American college students, high school seniors and adults. There, they'll work with local churches, nonprofits and community leaders. The combination of evangelism and discipleship represents a joint effort with the University of Capetown, and aims to provide African Americans with a unique opportunity to serve others while experiencing life beyond their country's borders. More compelling, it offers black Christians the chance to connect with people who are not only their brothers and sisters in Christ, but their family through history and culture.
Gilmer, an African-American studies major, conceived the idea for the Walkathon--a literal means of putting feet to his faith--after he saw firsthand the ravages of AIDS upon the African continent. The situation is particularly dire in South Africa, where an estimated 1 in 9 people are infected with HIV. (That ratio is almost 1 in 3 for 15 to 19-year-olds in the KwaZulu Natal region, where he visited.) We've all, by now, probably had exposure to various statistics and pronouncements about the AIDS pandemic, running the gamut from the merely depressing to the frighteningly alarmist. But the image burned in this young man's mind of that wraith-like girl, her skeletal frame bearing no resemblance to her identical twin, is what put him in motion.
A person of lesser faith would think he was walking into a quagmire. But Gilmer's undaunted. "We picked this issue because it is so universal," he explains. "We want everyone involved in this. We've been reaching out to different campus groups, including gay and lesbian student groups which have traditionally been at the forefront of AIDS activist causes, in an attempt to build common ground."
I can't say whether it's irony or synchronicity, but it intrigues me that the Walkathon is taking place in North Carolina, home of Sen. Jesse Helms (whose recent epiphany on AIDS is really more like a 90-degree turn than a full reversal of his stance on AIDS funding, as his supporters claim). The senator, famous for denying foreign aid to any but rabidly anti-communist dictatorships and thugocracies, has, as an act of conscience, recently sponsored a bill that would provide $500 million for the prevention of AIDS transmission from mother to child in Africa, where the need is greatest.
Wow. The Lord does, indeed, work in mysterious ways. But before he can be canonized, local AIDS activists are quick to point out that our sanctimonious senator's contrition doesn't extend to the domestic AIDS battle. Despite the fact that AIDS is now the fifth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 25 and 44 in the United States, Helms' conservatism keeps him silent or vigorously opposed to public policy efforts on the homefront. And there, AIDS has never overcome its initial stigma as a "gay disease," or efforts by Helms and others to cast preventive efforts--from sex education to condom distribution to needle exchanges--as kowtowing to immorality, rather than effective interim steps to save lives.
And then there's South Africa. Did I say "quagmire"? President Thabo Mbeki, of the ruling African National Congress party, has been made a pariah for challenging the international AIDS orthodoxy, most notably, for questioning the idea that AIDS originated in Africa and the link between the HIV virus and AIDS. He's also recently made headlines for seeking to block distribution of AIDS drugs pending more evidence of their efficacy.
To me, it's only natural that the ruler of a land long infected with a virulent strain of white supremacy called apartheid, would express skepticism about the causes and cure for what seems like the biological equivalent of the neutron bomb--a veritable plague capable of depopulating a continent while leaving its considerable natural resources intact. And there are serious and credentialed scientists who join Mbeki in dissenting from the company line concerning AIDS' origins in Africa and the causal links between the virus and the disease. They point out that many deaths in Africa attributed to AIDS are based on diagnoses that don't include blood tests, but instead, rely on symptoms of opportunistic infections that could be attributable to other environmental and epidemiological factors: extreme poverty, malnutrition and lack of adequate sanitation. It also seems natural that the high-priced AIDS drugs touted as a panacea by pharmaceutical conglomerates (and the countries that love them) are worrisome to the government of a relatively wealthy country that is saddled with a grossly inequitable distribution of resources, courtesy of apartheid.
Mbeki, though, is on some next-level skepticism, to the extent that his country's courts had to order the government to make a donated drug, Nevirapine, available to its people, despite the fact that it's been shown to cut in half the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child. That route of infection accounts for 100,000 babies who contract HIV annually in South Africa. While criticism of reigning AIDS dogma is not a bad thing, in the face of a crisis, the South African government simply can't afford to remain inactive on AIDS--as if there were no consequences to waiting. It should press ahead with what, to the best of everyone's current knowledge, works, while exploring alternatives.
Impact is steadfastly walking above the international AIDS fray. "Regardless of where AIDS came from, it's here now, and we have to deal with it," Gilmer says, matter-of-factly. For those made leery of contributing to the Walkathon because of the South African government's position on AIDS, it's reassuring to know that the AIDS portion of the event's proceeds will be donated directly to the AIDS Foundation of South Africa, a registered nongovernmental organization. Gilmer says the foundation was chosen as the beneficiary because it "has a track record of doing an excellent job in getting money to grassroots organizations that deal with the problems directly."
And speaking of grassroots action, at a time when many decry the apathy of both the church and young people, the spirit behind the Impact AIDS Walkathon is refreshing. Taking the long view of African-American history, the current lack of activism in the church is a relatively recent phenomenon. The black church certainly represented from the days of slave rebellions all the way up through the civil rights era.
Of course, the issues facing today's youth aren't quite as cut and dried as those our forebears had to contend with. When asked for his take on the level of activism among his fellow students, Gilmer says, "The way I see it, struggle is not so much about institutions nowadays as about us. Too many black students seem to equate giving back to the community with giving back to themselves. Rather than invest their time and energy in helping others, the focus is on what they can benefit from."
Ouch. Gilmer's indictment of materialism as an obstacle to struggle has resonance, especially at a time when many so-called preachers preoccupy themselves and their congregations with how "we shall overcome" this bad credit so we can get that SUV down-payment together. The antidote to that attitude can be found in the story he told us about the twin sisters. It reads like a biblical parable about how we should treat each other. As members of the human family, we're all born of the same "parent." Those of us fortunate enough to be the "healthy twin" should not act out of a sense of obligation, but rather, be motivated through love to take care of our sickly siblings. If we truly possessed that type of love, it would be so natural, we'd do it without thinking. That's the way to really have an impact.
For more information on the Walkathon, visit www.impactwalk.com. If you can't give anything, or can't walk the whole walk, then just walk a mile. And if you can't walk, drive past them while they're on their way, beep the horn, and let 'em know they're headed in the right direction.