During late December, everybody I knew was busy with Christmas - in a good kind of way - centered in church, focusing on family and faith, preparing music, gifts, food and more for people we love. I was busy too, but on my computer there were a couple e-mails that just wouldn't leave my mind. One was from Jim Bushfield, Indiana Conference's Director of Connectional Ministries. His message was one of celebration of monies given to the Global AIDS Fund from 2005-2008.
Another set of e-mails came from missionary friend Dru Smith, who was journaling the death of a little girl named Eleanor Banda. Dru and Eleanor are people I met in Zambia on a study leave last year. Dru is a middle-aged woman from Peoria, Ill. with a big heart for children. Eleanor was one of those beloved children whose wretched existence in Zambezi Compound (Zambian version of a slum where the desperately poor barely survive) was brightened by her relationship with Dru and a tiny Christian school she attended.
Here was my dilemma: I wanted to share the good news that from 2005 to 2008 the North Indiana Conference had given $10,189 and the South Indiana Conference had given $36,002 to the Global AIDS Fund, Advance #982345. Since my role as mission staff in the North Conference was to raise awareness of mission issues, I just couldn't make my heart happy beyond the fact that in my conference we each gave only 10.4 cents total during the four-reported years, or about 2.6 cents per member,* per year to the Global AIDS Fund. For me, it got personal. The life of Eleanor amounted to half a nickel.
Grief still comes when I think about Eleanor and her sad story. Eleanor died a victim of AIDS - not because she necessarily had AIDS, although she may have, but because she was the innocent victim of poverty and evil. Her mother had died of AIDS, causing her father to leave her in the care of his oldest brother's family. Eleanor became one more mouth to feed, an unwanted burden for a family already on the edge of survival. They starved her to death, calling the illnesses of her starvation the curses of a witch or the haunting of her dead mother.
Here is Dru's description of a last visit to Eleanor made with John, a school administrator.
"I have great sorrow in my heart, because Eleanor is not among them, a group of children for whom she was preparing a Christmas party. Yesterday, John and I slogged through the mud to visit her home at the edge of the compound. There were no adults around; only small children who reached out their hands to greet me and delighted in my usual 'tickles to the tummy.' The older cousin was in charge. She was about 14-years-old. She went into the dark, damp mud house to get Eleanor, who was now too weak to walk. She carried her out, and when Eleanor saw us, she started to cry - there was no sound, and no tears, because she was too dehydrated; just an anguished look on her face."
She clung to John and rested her head on his shoulder, because she could barely hold it up. He said, "When I held her in my arms, I could feel her hip bones protruding and saw how the flesh in her legs had shrunk to where her knees looked too large. Her hands and feet were swollen with the edema, and her skin was leathery. She had what appears to be a rash on her legs. George, her uncle, told us that he believed either she was being haunted by her dead mother or was the victim of witchcraft. Therefore, the grandparents from both the mother's and father's sides were to come that weekend and give her a 'blessing.' They believe this would drive away the evil spirits that were tormenting her and making her sick."
Eleanor was a victim of AIDS - and the cruel effects of poverty, ignorance and evil. She was worth more than two cents. So there you have it. Yes, I am extremely grateful to those who gave to the Global HIV/AIDS fund, Advance #982345 and to other projects caring for the children of AIDS around the world. Yes, I know that HIV/AIDS is complicated and will take all of us - governments, churches, business and others, to solve. It's big. But, for me, it's about Eleanor.
Eleanor Banda died Dec. 28, 2008 in Kitwe, Zambia. The cause of her death was listed as severe malnutrition. The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund continues to raise money through Advance #902345. You can give on-line through the Advance, or through your local church. You can give to The Advance online by logging on to http://new.gbgm-umc.org/give/advance.
Gina Riendeau serves as North Indiana associate director, Board of Global Ministries.
*Average membership in the NIC from 2005-2008 was 97,745 members.