WHEN SISTER Raphaela Handler arrived in Namibia in 1996 to coordinate the country's Roman Catholic hospitals and health-care clinics, she realized that AIDS was a "time bomb" about to burst. She had worked previously in Tanzania, and had seen the AIDS pandemic spread there. Although Namibia was years behind Tanzania in the spread of this disease, the pattern was similar. Namibia was heading for disaster.
By late 1998, Namibia was the third most HIV-infected country in the world, with more than one in five adults estimated to be HIV-positive. Even more disturbing, according to Sister Raphaela, was that the churches were "conspirators in the silence," doing nothing to address the crisis. She initiated a mass advocacy effort that resulted in Catholic AIDS Action, a program approved in 1998 by the Namibian Catholic Bishops Conference. It was the first national church-based program of HIV/AIDS prevention and care in Namibia.
The Namibian bishops laid down two ground rules: first, the program must build on Christian values, and second, it shouldn't cost the bishops conference any money (it had none). And so, with prayers that "God will provide," Sister Raphaela started looking for people with whom she could share her vision--those within Namibia who could do the work, and those outside the country who could provide the funding.
At the time I met Sister Raphaela I was completing a study of the country's orphans and was developing a guide to the policies and programs for children in need. I was excited by her vision, so I said, "Sure, I'll help."
We began with a structure already in place: the country's 91 Roman Catholic parishes, 300 small Christian communities or outstations, and its Catholic hospitals and clinics, schools and hostels. We began putting up posters throughout the country, proclaiming our theme: "Courage to Fight and Strength to Care." Archbishop Bonifatius Haushiku declared at the official opening of Catholic AIDS Action, "AIDS is a disease, not a sin."
Since one out of four Namibians is Catholic, we could reach many of the country's residents by reaching Catholics. And since we were able to build on existing church structures and overseas church contacts, we moved right into implementation. As a result, our impact was almost immediate. Donations began flowing in from individuals and small German church organizations that knew and trusted Sister Raphaela's work. Soon UNICEF, UNAIDS and Germany's Misereor sent money for staff training.
We developed a mission statement rooted in biblical text and the life of Jesus: "Acting in the spirit of Christ, Catholic AIDS Action challenges the AIDS pandemic in Namibia with the courage to fight and the strength to care. It builds on Roman Catholic affiliated groups and institutions to inspire and support programs of HIV/ AIDS prevention, home-based care, spirituality and support of orphans."
Home-based care and issues of social welfare were readily supported by the church. They reach to the core of what it means to be a Catholic and a Christian: to reach out and serve the whole person spiritually and physically, as both Jesus and the early missionaries did. …