July 28, 2009

Haven't been posting much...

...while I've been in Nome. But this should give you a good idea of the fun I've been having.
You can also see more of my pictures on Facebook (even if you're not on Facebook) by clicking on this link. Or you can check here for pictures from one recent event.

More to come on settling back in once I leave Nome.

July 18, 2009

Testing Times

I’ve written before about how many people in Itipini are afraid to be tested for HIV because they are afraid what the result might be and afraid a positive test is a death sentence. This is one of the defining features of the HIV epidemic, I believe. I would always tell people how it is better to know than to not know and that there is help available for people that will prolong their life. But I recently got a little taste of that fear myself.

About a year ago in South Africa I thought about getting an HIV test. It would have just been a precautionary step. But it seemed that after a year in the clinic, it might be a wise idea. I never did get tested. Maybe I had heard from too many people at that time that they were too scared to be tested and I let that affect me, even though I had no reason to be scared. Some irrational part of my mind guided my decision-making and the idea of being tested just slipped away, even though it might have been a good example for others in Itipini.

Now that I’m back in North America, it made sense to get a pretty thorough check-up to make sure that everything I’ve been exposed to in the past two years hasn’t left any permanent marks. Naturally, when I went to see the doctor he suggested I have an HIV test. I readily agreed. I was over that irrational thought process.

The lab in Nome has to send the blood out for the HIV test so I had to wait a few days. The doctor had said that if it was negative, he would probably just leave a message on the answering machine telling me that. If it was positive, “we would have to sit down and have a talk.” But, he added, I shouldn’t be worried if I got a message telling me to call him.

A few days after the blood was drawn, I got back late on a Friday night and there was a message on the machine. “Jesse, this is Doctor So and So. Could you give me a call?” The HIV test was the only outstanding item remaining from the visit so I knew it was about that. It had been a good night and the call brought me right back down to earth. Why didn’t he just tell me on the phone? I lay awake in bed that night thinking about what it might mean.

The doctor, unfortunately, was out of town for a few days so I got to stew in my own thoughts. It’s easy to say in retrospect that I was never really scared about what the results might be but I definitely thought about it a lot. The only thing I did that put me at the slightest risk for contracting HIV was handle needles and I never poked myself with them. I covered up even the slightest abrasions when I noticed them. Objectively, I also knew that HIV is actually a difficult virus to transmit. I knew I didn’t have any symptoms of HIV (though given its long incubation that shows nothing). And I knew I shouldn’t be afraid of HIV. I personally know scores of people living successful and healthy lives with the virus.

But there was that tiny sliver of unknowing, the thought that “well… maybe… you can never be too careful… there was that one time I didn’t wear gloves…”

The doctor and I next spoke when I was at work. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic but I closed the door to the newsroom before I picked up his call and tried to get my head from a point where I was writing a story about fish to a point where I was ready to hear about my health.

“Well, Jesse,” he said. “I’ve got your HIV results here.” He seemed to take a torturous path to get to the point. “They did a really thorough work-up on them.” He explained all the ways my blood had been tested. “And, of course,” he added, almost as an after-thought, “you’re negative.”


We chatted a bit about when or if I should be re-tested and he apologized for leaving an unclear message. And that was that. (I also don’t have TB, despite daily exposure to it.)

It’s a reminder, I guess, of how we are all the same. Despite my preaching about the importance of testing these last two years, when it is my blood on the line, I get scared and nervous and uncertain just like everyone in Itipini.

July 13, 2009

Transkei Shout-Out

Often while I was in Itipini, I found myself wishing that someone would write a version of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed for the people of the world who live on less than $1 or $2 a day. Now, it looks like someone has. The book is Portfolios of the Poor. I haven't read it yet but NPR's Planet Money podcast interviewed the authors in a recent episode. A lot of what they talked about reminded me a lot of my experience with people in Itipini. The authors talk about a visit to a South African village near Mount Frere. That's a Transkeian town that is very close to Mthatha. Listen to the podcast and then go find the book. That's what I'm going to do.

July 3, 2009

“That baby looks so pale!”

I’ve been back in North America for ten days now. I endured the long plane flight back and then another series of flights to get to Alaska, where I am now. I’ll be happy not to get on a plane again any time soon.

The major adjustments have all been on relatively minor things. For instance, the size of the produce in the grocery store always gets me. The eggplant is the size of my forearm and the tomatoes are huge. On the other hand, the avocados are puny, compared to the softball-sized ones we ate in South Africa.

On one of my many flights, there was a young baby and as the family boarded all I could think was, “That baby looks so pale! I sure hope it is alright.” Then I realized the baby was white and was supposed to look the way it did. I guess that’s what happens when you work with a bunch of black babies for so long.

In South Africa, by virtue of my skin colour and perceived wealth, I was always the centre of attention wherever I went and regardless of the situation. I didn’t always like it. Now I am just part of the crowd, which has been a relatively easy adjustment to make.

I don’t find myself thinking about Itipini all that often. I don’t know if I should be relieved about that or feel kind of guilty. I’m back at work as a reporter, fishing has become an act of civil disobedience, there's a big parade tomorrow, and Sarah Palin just resigned (!) so there’s lots to keep me busy here.

July 1, 2009

Star Trek, Jairus, His Daughter, Miracles, and Mission

Here's the sermon I preached on Sunday at Christ Church Anglican in North Bay, Ontario. If you live in Nome, Alaska you might not want to read it as I'll be recycling several of its themes in sermons up north.

28 June 2009
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Let us pray.
Dear God. Why is it so easy for you to perform miracles and so difficult for us? And how can we be more like you? Amen.

Good morning. This is now the third time you’ve let me into this pulpit to preach about my experience as a missionary. I am tempted to begin as I always do, with the reminder that mission is not solely or even mostly about conversion, bopping people on the head with the Bible, and dunking them in the nearest puddle. Mission belongs God. And God’s mission has been the same throughout history - to reconcile people to each other and to God and in so doing build up the righteousness and completeness known by the ancient Hebrew word shalom. For the last two years, ending last Tuesday, I sought this reconciliation in a place called Itipini, a shantytown on the site of a former garbage dump in one of the poorest parts of South Africa. I’ll return in a moment to tell you more about the clinic and community center where I worked but for now I want to begin someplace else: in the movie theatre.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the new “Star Trek” movie. I have. Twice. What stayed with me after the last explosion was the dialogue, especially on board the space ship Enterprise. Have you ever noticed how Captain Kirk gives commands? “Alert the sick bay to prepare to receive injured crewmen.” “Fire on enemy ships!” “Energize!” “Enterprise, get us out of here!” or my favourite, “Mr. Scott, maximum warp!” He just says what he wants. And the shocking thing is that he gets it, every time. The injured crewmen are treated, the enemy ship is fired upon, Kirk is transported into or out of whatever danger zone he chooses, and the Enterprise does go into warp speed.

It reminds me a bit of how Jesus acts in this morning’s Gospel lesson. A sick woman needs healing? Jesus says, “Go in peace and be healed of your disease” and she is. A young girl has died? Jesus says, “Little girl, get up!” and the little girl does get up even though she had been thought dead. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is able to perform miracles simply by visiting and speaking to sick people.

Let me just say that after two years in South Africa where I knew countless sick people and watched helplessly as many of them died, despite my best efforts to prevent it, this Captain Kirk/Jesus Christ way of looking at the world seems improbable, impossible, out of touch, unrealistic, and, quite frankly, downright insensitive and rude. When I sat in a tumble-down shack next to people about to die, no matter what I said, no matter what I did, they were just never able to get up. Miracles are for Jesus. That connection between word and deed epitomized by Captain Kirk is imaginary and represents a point none of us will ever attain.

That’s what I thought at least. And then one day in South Africa I performed a miracle of my own.

I first met a woman named Pakama about this time last year. She was in her mid-30s and when we met she was very sick. Her HIV infection had turned into AIDS and she had tuberculosis as well. She had just started taking the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs that combat AIDS but for a variety of reasons she still needed to make numerous trips to a local clinic and the doctor to change her ARV prescription so it would be compatible with her TB treatment.

The trouble was that Pakama was quite weak. The clinic she needed to visit was a 15-minute walk away, uphill. Actually I should say, it was 15 minutes away for someone like me, a young healthy person unaffected by HIV. For Pakama, it was impossible. She couldn’t even make it to our clinic under her own steam and we were only 200 meters or so away from her home. When she talked, she had to take frequent pauses to catch her breath between words. She had severe gastro-intestinal problems, likely brought about by the HIV, so she couldn’t eat, which just made her weaker. By the time I met Pakama, I had known lots of other people in similar situations and virtually all of them had died. I didn’t have a lot of hope Pakama would be any different.

In Xhosa, the language that is spoken in Itipini, the word pakama means get up. It’s the imperative form of the word so it means “get up!” When I would find Pakama lying in her bed in her shack, I wanted nothing more to tell her what Jesus told Jairus’s daughter and what Bob Marley sang - “Get up, stand up.” Of course, she didn’t.

Over the course of several weeks, I drove Pakama and her mother to appointment after appointment, in a seemingly never-ending quest through the bureaucratic maze of the health-care system to change her ARV prescription. There were numerous hurdles but day by day we knocked them down, only to be confronted by new and different ones on the other side. Pakama’s health got worse. She could no longer walk at all and had to be lifted into the car and then wheeled around the clinic. I was hopeful but a gnawing voice in the back of head told me not to be surprised if I showed up one morning and learned she had died the night before.

I’ll spare you all the details but eventually Pakama got a new ARV prescription and began taking the right pills. We didn’t have to go to so many appointments anymore but she was still too weak to come to the clinic for her TB treatment so I visited her every day to give her that. Progress, if it was visible at all, came slowly. She spent most days under a pile of blankets on her bed, complaining about the cold.

It was about that point that I took a break from South Africa and came here last August and September. Pakama was on my mind while I travelled and when I returned to Itipini one of the first things I did was seek her out. I found her in her shack, standing up and doing the laundry. After I asked how she was, I had one question, “Uyakwazi ukuzihambela? Can you walk by yourself?”

She glanced away as if embarrassed to remember her previous condition. But she nodded slightly.

“Ndibonise,” I said. “Show me.”

And so on that warm October day, I made Pakama walk back and forth in front of her shack. It had been obvious to me from the moment I saw her doing her laundry that she was much better. But watching her sashay back and forth unassisted like that convinced me that she was well on the path to recovery. But I didn’t think of it as a miracle.

A few months after that, Pakama finished her eight months of TB treatment. As I filled out the paperwork to formally discharge her from treatment, I mentioned to Jenny, the missionary I worked with, that Pakama was finally done. Jenny smiled and looked at me. “You know,” she said. “You saved her life.”

Me? I had saved a life? Impossible! Saving a life is a miracle. I couldn’t do that! The idea made me uncomfortable and Jenny could tell so she dropped the subject. We didn’t mention it again.

I think what made me most uncomfortable about Jenny’s assertion that I had saved Pakama’s life is that it gave me too much credit. What did I do? I drove the car. I lifted Pakama in and out of the passenger seat and in and out of a wheelchair. Surely such simple acts can not lead to such tremendous results?

But as time passed, Pakama gained weight - always a good sign when you have AIDS - and kept improving. I moved on to other patients and she carried on with her treatment and the normal course of her life. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think back to my early doubts that some morning I would arrive in Itipini and see the hearse in front of Pakama’s shack. And I had to acknowledge that somehow my efforts had helped prolong her life. There was never a “get up” moment like with Jairus’s daughter but a miracle had occurred. Somehow I had found myself accidentally stumbling along a path that Jesus intentionally followed in his ministry.

It’s tempting to look at the miracles in this morning’s Gospel passage as isolated events. But we shouldn’t ignore what precedes them. Immediately preceding the healing of Jairus’s daughter was a journey. Jesus’ ministry was not stationary. Gospel passages, including this morning’s, are always beginning with phrases like “Jesus had crossed to the other side” of the sea or “Then he went among the villages” or “He left that place.” Jesus was always on the move, ranging far and wide over the Holy Land.

I went on a journey with Pakama. It was an actual physical journey of countless car rides to and from clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, and so on. If there was anything I did, it was simply to help her find the way on this journey, to point out where she had to go when she didn’t know, to follow her when she knew the destination, and to help her along when she was too weak to go herself. Mission is a journey. Our task is to accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ on their journeys and let them shape ours.

So Jesus didn’t heal people, like Jairus’s daughter, from a distance. Before he spoke to them and healed them, he went to them. And Jesus’ decision to go to sick people wasn’t made, say, when he decided to go to another town or decided to cross the sea. Preceding the journey part of the healing was a much more basic - and also much more consequential - decision, the decision to be Incarnate among humans, to take flesh as one of us, and be Emmanuel, “God with us.” This is the obvious point but Jesus would never have healed anyone if he had stayed in heaven at the right hand of the Father. If I had stayed in North America, I never would have been able to accompany Pakama on the journey that led to her healing. I chose to share an existence with her.

Jesus’ command to Jairus’s daughter, “Get up” is a phrase that is heard time and again in the Bible, only there’s often another part added, “Get up and go.” God says this to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah, to Jonah, to name just a few of the people who learned they couldn’t serve God where they were but had to move someplace else to do it. Jesus’ healing words to Jairus’s daughter are as much meant for us as they are for the little girl he is healing on that particular day. We need to get up and go to the people who are different than us, to share an existence with them and begin a journey.

The healing of Pakama and the healing of Jairus’s daughter share common antecedents - a decision to share an existence, a decision to being a journey. The analogy begins to break down in the actual healing itself. That’s because unlike Jairus’s daughter, Pakama had an imperfect and sinful human accompanying her - me. There was never a moment when someone said to Pakama “be healed.” Healing does not come in a moment, as it did with Jairus’s daughter, but over a lengthy journey. Our job is to choose to take that journey - by faith and with thanksgiving - and pray that we are headed in the right direction.

I know that sometimes when I start talking about people living with HIV in a far corner of the world, it can seem pretty remote from North Bay and this congregation. It is. The tendency - and I’ve seen this in many other congregations - is to pat me on the back, congratulate me on the difference I’ve made, and then blithely forget everything else I’ve said.

But mission is not just for me. It is not just for the group of people who feel called to live overseas for a time. Not everyone - or even most people - is called to work with people with HIV. But all of us are called to journey towards righteousness and wholeness. Mission begins in baptism. The great South African Desmond Tutu says, “We are all missionaries or we are nothing.” By choosing to follow the Lord, we choose to commit ourselves to God’s mission of reconciliation, the seeking and building of shalom. Mission happens all over God’s creation because the needs of the world - mental, physical, spiritual, emotional - are equally obvious in North Bay and Itipini.

When we think about where God is calling us, let us begin by asking this question: how can I be incarnate among these people I want to serve? This may seem obvious - well, I live in North Bay and there are people suffering here. But is that really incarnation? Incarnation is going someplace and choosing to share an existence. Just because we know somebody is suffering doesn’t mean we’re sharing that existence. How do we enter more fully into a shared existence with the wild diversity of the members of the Body of Christ instead of retreating to our familiar groupings?

And after we share that existence, let us ask this: where is this journey going? Is it headed in a direction towards peace and righteousness? Or do we need to redirect its trajectory in a new direction? Martin Luther King Jr. often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Indeed. But maybe we need to pull on that arc so it bends a bit quicker towards that righteousness we yearn for.

None of this is easy. Being incarnate among a people can be difficult. It’s worth noting that Jesus’ decision to be Incarnate led to his death on the cross, the same place many of Jesus’ followers ended up. Moses followed God’s call and ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years. Working on a dump gave me countless illnesses I would have avoided if I had never gone to Itipini. There are countless speed bumps and road blocks we encounter on our journeys, some brought about by the failings of the world and some by our own failings.

So incarnation brings risks, both from without and from within. But neither would Jesus have saved the world if he had never been Incarnate. And neither would I have experienced a transcendent journey in mission had I stayed here. Incarnation requires a certain willingness to open oneself to what may come, a willingness to be vulnerable, that is not common in this world of ours that seeks to control everything. But I think we’ll find that the benefits of the decision to be incarnate, to share an existence far outweigh the costs.

Jesus did not come to heal the world. If he did, he would have made a beeline for the leper colonies and gone to work. Jesus came to teach and to save. He left the healing up to us. It is our job to heal the brokenness of the world and work towards peace. That’s what mission is all about. It can seem like a tall order and it is. But miracles happen every day in this world. And they are performed by people like you and me. It’s simple and straightforward. It begins in the decision to get up and go, to go to where there is hurt and suffering in the world, and then to choose to accompany these brothers and sisters of ours on a journey into mission, poking and prodding that journey in the direction of righteousness and peace. We may not know where the path leads or when the journey will end. But it is our calling to set out on that journey nonetheless.