Irish nun sets out global AIDS warning to Christian unity gathering

By Stephen Brown
January 23, 2008

The world is losing the war against AIDS, says Sister Sheila Flynn, an English-born Irish nun who works with HIV-affected women in South Africa, as she urged churches to mobilise a collective effort to tackle the pandemic.

"We must not only think differently about this catastrophe, we must act differently if we are to survive," Flynn, a Roman Catholic Dominican nun, told an event in Geneva to mark the 100th anniversary of the 18-25 January Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. "There are enough resources. But perhaps there is not enough will. Our churches are challenged to mobilise these resources."

The prayer week is observed by millions of Christians throughout the world as a time to pray for the unity of the Church. The event at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches was intended to highlight the meaning of prayer for unity in situations of conflict and distress.

Flynn, a co-founder of the Kopanang Women's Group, spoke of her experience of working with women, many of them HIV-positive, in an area 55 kilometres from Johannesburg, the biggest commercial hub in South Africa.

"Unity is about us working together. HIV/AIDS is a story about ourselves. What kind of people are we? AIDS has claimed more [lives] than all the wars of the 20th century," she noted.

The project the nun works on helps women to generate income by creating artwork for sale, and Kopanang products are now sold in the United States, Germany, Ireland, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia. It brings together women from the township of Tsakane which has black residents and from the mainly "coloured" or mixed-raced township of Geluksdal.

The townships were erected for the different racial groups in South Africa's apartheid era to provide labour for mines and factories, many of which have subsequently closed down, leading to an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent.

"We have 21 church groups, a microcosm of church unity without any formalisation, 12 different language groups, two different historically divided communities from the time of apartheid," noted Flynn, who belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena.

The Kopanang Women's Group is on the site of the Sithand'izingane Care Project (Sithand'izingane in Zulu means, "we love the children"). This includes a drop-in day-care centre for HIV affected and vulnerable children up to six years of age, an after-school care programme for 55 orphans; an organic food garden training programme, crisis food distribution to 150 families; a counselling centre, and a feeding scheme five times a week for 400 orphans in the township schools.

"Those among whom I live and minister are a daily reminder of what it means to be in the presence of God, of the reality that even if the body is spiralling down towards death, the Spirit is sustaining our every effort," said Flynn.

"Unfortunately, our churches have not always espoused Kingdom values in our practice. Too often those most in need of support have been met with judgement, experiencing criticism and shame," Flynn warned. "AIDS challenges us to focus on what truly matters."

She said she had asked the Kopanang women what message she should bring to the Geneva gathering. "It was simply: tell the churches to come close to us," Flynn recalled. "Is that too much to ask?"

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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