Friday, 31 July 2015


Coming from a non-religious family and ‘modern’ social circle I did find some aspects of the Anglican Church decidedly weird. Not least the incredibly bitter debate about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans gender) issues. But it was all rather arms-length and it worked for me that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was saying he would rather spend the afterlife in hell than go to a gay-hating heaven.

Looking back I am still amazed at the God-incidence that took me to that parish, several suburbs away from where I lived. A friend in my Wednesday morning Eucharist group where we bared our souls to each other ran HIV/AIDS workshops for an NGO and was the first activist I’d met (no he wasn’t infected, just deeply caring). When I asked advice on where I could do volunteer work he advised me to check with Jenny Marcus who led a volunteer group at the Charlotte Maxexe Hospital’s HIV clinic.

God's punishment
I’m not great at dates but it was about 1999. There were no anti-retrovirals in South Africa, the disease was largely viewed as God’s punishment for homosexuality and promiscuity. The stigma, nurtured in religious circles swirled and surged and would emerge as a major killer in Africa. As it still is today.

I was asked if I could help on Thursdays. It had for decades been the traditional day off for domestic helpers and infected men and women were using that precious little time off to visit the ward in secret. They would have been fired on the spot had their employers known about their status.

I allocated three hours each week, which was as much as I could manage while still keeping my clients content. Looking back it was also probably about as much as I could cope with emotionally. When I arrived and the ward sister realised that I was the chief executive of a major PR agency she felt I’d be most useful in an administrative capacity. But a God-incidence saved me in the nick of time. Jenny arrived.

She immediately steered me towards the folk in the packed waiting room. Although the clinic only officially opened at 8am, many had queued at the door from as early as 5am. My first and most important lesson, one that has stood me in great stead for many years, was to watch her hug those folk and kiss them on the lips. I watched faces light up. I saw holiness at work. I met good people living in a hell of secrecy and, in too many instances, shame. I got to know decent middle aged men. Grandmothers who had never been unfaithful. Young mothers anxious that their babies were infected.

The unbelievable joy, usually after two years, of finding that the HIV virus had not transmitted from a mother to her child.

The joy of knowing a child had not been infected at birth

There’s plenty more to tell about Jenny, heroic doctors and nurses and the hell of a pandemic in a country where the State President (Nelson Mandela’s successor) refused to believe that HIV is the precursor to AIDS. He was aided (pun intended) and abetted by a new Minister of Health who believed anti-retrovirals were poison. She was punting beetroot, sweet potatoes and garlic as alternatives.

Dropping like flies
South Africans were becoming infected and dying at a horrific rate.

Many Anglicans were opting to dip their Eucharist wafer in the chalice instead of sipping from the communal cup. Ignorance and fear ruled. Christians were fully into ‘love the sinner hate the sin’ mode. Church was the last place people who tested positive would turn to. To this day I have never had a person come to the altar rail to ask for public prayer because they have tested positive. Such is the power of religious bigotry surrounding what has become a manageable chronic disease.

Some of you may have noticed that I skipped a blog post last week. I’m tempted to say it was because I was frantically busy.

Fact is, I’d been asked to bless someone’s car and after years of doing this without question I found myself wondering where the sacred and superstition meet.

How holy is holy water?

I shared my concern on Facebook. To date there are 22 comments. They range from folk who tie the water to their baptism and view the blessing as giving thanks to God. Others say the practice is a hangover from Catholicism or that the people who use the car should be blessed instead.

There were jokes about the need for holy protection from our taxi drivers and, inevitably, the one about the rabbi who snips a bit off the end of the exhaust pipe.

I’d love your comments.

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