Excerpts from an invited sharing by Jaya Canterbury-Counts, M.Ed., Executive director of the River Fund to the Association of Black Churches in Ft. Pierce, FL, 2003:
  

     

Good evening. I would like to begin with a prayer.

Dear Lord,

We are together tonight to thank you for your loving kindness toward us your children. We are grateful that we can meet as one family under God to care for one another and our brothers and sisters around the world. We thank you, Lord, that we can come together in this sanctified place to talk about the hard things. We ask as always for your guidance and direction. We ask you tonight and every night until it is over to help us find a cure for AIDS. We humbly beseech you to wake us up to not judge or condemn those who suffer, but to open our hearts to your love so that we might love one another as you love us. We praise you and thank you. We ask these things in Jesus Name. Amen

Thank you so much for having me here to talk about the international AIDS crisis. Let me begin by telling you a story.

I was in Barcelona Spain last summer at the l4th International AIDS Conference. Bear in mind that this conference cost millions of dollars to put on. Many of the drug companies had booths that had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

The opening night of the conference I received a call in my hotel room at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was my friend and brother, Fr. Centurio Olaboro from Uganda. His sister had just died of AIDS. She had been forced out of her husband's village, because in Africa the woman is often blamed for the disease. She had gone home to her mother's house to die. She was suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea and some dementia. That morning after her mother had left the house to go to the market, his sister wondered off. They looked for her for 8 hours before finding her body out in the bush.

She had died. This was the sister of a catholic priest ... educated, loved in his community but still without access to medical care. This was his third sister to die of AIDS.

Whole families are being wiped out and devastated by AIDS. And that is happening right here at home as well.

The numbers are staggering. Every day, 8,000 people die from AIDS. So far, the disease has killed more than 20 million people worldwide, and another 40 million are infected with HIV. In some African nations, one third of the adult population is HIV positive.

  • The number of people living with HIV in the world today has risen to 42 million. Five million people were newly-infected and over 3 million people were killed by the disease in 2002.
  • About 29 million Africans are infected with HIV. Only 30,000 of these people are receiving aids medicine. That is 1 in every 1000 people.
  • AIDS will leave 20 million children in Africa without one or both parents by 2010. That is nearly double the current number of 12 million. By 2010, AIDS will also have orphaned an additional five million children elsewhere in the world.
  • If India and China do not take prompt and aggressive action, their numbers may easily rival Africa in the near future.
  • Europe and the Central Asia Region continue to experience the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world.
  • HIV/AIDS has become the major cause of death among men under the age of 45 in the Caribbean, making this the second most affected region in the world.
  • The UN has reported that women now make up more than 50% of all HIV cases in the world.
  • Finally, AIDS kills one child every minute somewhere in the world.

Fifty percent of those infected worldwide, and 58 percent of AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa, are women. Here at home, women now account for a fourth of all newly diagnosed AIDS cases, double the percentage from ten years ago.

If we are serious about combating this plague, women must be empowered so that they can defend themselves against the men who are infecting and abandoning them.

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, girls under 18 are four times to seven times more likely than boys the same age to become infected. Why? The answer is sexual coercion and violence against women, child marriage, polygamy and the widespread belief that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. Girls are frequently forced into sex with older men in exchange for food for their families or money for school.

AIDS is wiping away parents, destroying families, and the communities are breaking down. You see the whole health system breaking down including the educational system. Can African governments be far behind?

It is quite amazing to me how many similarities exist between rural America and Africa including difficulty in accessing treatment. Besides being poor, sometimes the doctor or medical care is too far away. Of course, stigma remains one of the hardest obstacles to overcome.

Many of you are familiar with the work that The River Fund and Kashi Foundation do here at home. Besides the monthly HIV dinners, our Ananda Devi leads her crew of volunteers on rounds to many area nursing homes every week - serving 3 counties.

We participate in HIV/AIDS education and prevention in partnership with Cathy Robinson's Friends-Together and Project Response. And we work with our neighborhood food bank.

Finally, I would like to share a few of the things that we at The River Fund and Kashi are doing to help alleviate the pain and suffering of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

In 1999, along with our spiritual leader, Ma Jaya, over 100 of us traveled to South Africa for the Parliament of the Worlds Religions. While there we visited the squatter settlements outside of Cape Town in the area known as townships. At that time, we helped to build a nursery school in New Rest, one of those settlements.

That trip changed all of our lives and it certainly changed mine. I have returned to Africa every year since and will go again next July. In rural Uganda out in the country the little kids see our white faces and call out “mzungu – mzungu!!!” (Mzungu means white person).

Two years ago I took my 14 year old son, Andy, to rural Uganda. We stayed with Fr. Centurio. That trip changed his life and he will never again be just a normal American teenager. Besides the devastation of AIDS, we saw many children with malaria burning up with fever. In Uganda, even in the cities, there is no water that is safe to drink unless it is bottled or has been boiled.

Ma Jaya met Fr. Centurio in 1998 and was deeply touched by his heart and his efforts to help his people. Since 2000 we have been helping to support Ma's Orphans Centre.

Our program in Uganda is in the small city of Tororo in Eastern Uganda near the Kenyan border. This program provides food, clothing, medical care and pays school fees for nearly 700 orphaned children from ages birth to 19. Two hundred of these children live at the center.

In 2001 the school children at The River School in Sebastian collected coins to buy a cow for Ma's Orphans Centre. They called it Change for Change. They did this so that the children in Uganda might sell the milk and make some much needed money to start a cottage business.

In 2002 the River School children, most of them primary school age, raised more money to buy goats for Ma's Center, again by collecting coins.

They are helping not only with donations but by letting these children so far away know that they are not alone and forgotten.

Additionally just last month we have begun an interdenominational/interfaith prayer circle with our friends in Uganda. Many friends around the world have also joined us to pray for peace in Northern Uganda and for Peace for the whole world. The very first week over 200 people came to the prayer group in Uganda. They prayed for the people of the United States and for World Peace.

I invite you all to join us on Thursdays by taking a moment to remember the forgotten people of Northern Uganda. And to pray for peace and a cure for AIDS.

None of these endeavors cost very much money. The cost of not caring is so high as to be unimaginable. We have made a commitment to make a difference in the world we live in. As people of faith, we have promised our God to care for each other as one family and to always follow his teaching to feed everyone and love everyone.

Thank you again for inviting me this evening.

Thank you again and God bless you.

For more information how to contribute donations of money and energy contact:

      Jaya Canterbury-Counts, M.Ed.
      Executive Director
      The River Fund
      Phone: + 1 772 589 5076
      Fax: + 1 253 390 3985
      www.riverfund.org

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