Fears over praying will only bring good work to its knees

Published in the Courier Mail 2 February 2009

AS HE smiled, the crinkles in his face deepened and I could glimpse his teeth, stained from a lifetime of chewing betelnut. I also saw the weariness behind his eyes. Like many others in his community, he found himself as the only carer for his two grandchildren. They were parentless, orphaned by an AIDS epidemic that has decimated a generation.

Several streets away, I met an elderly couple. He was 88. She was 87, and starting to suffer from Parkinson’s disease. They have taken in their 12-year-old great-granddaughter to care for her, as she has lost both her parents and grandparents to AIDS. Sitting on the floor of a very simple hut, the great-grandmother took my hand and simply held it.

I was in Hang Dong, a community near Chiang Mai in Thailand. In 2005, Hang Dong was considered one of the worst AIDS-affected areas in Thailand. Sexual promiscuity is a culturally acceptable practice, and affairs are almost expected, particularly when men are away from their homes. They then often return home with HIV/AIDS and transmit it to their wives. There is a large number of sex workers living in urban areas near Chiang Mai city and they tell of foreign clients who will only buy their services if they do not use protection.

As you walk and drive around Hang Dong, and particularly as you meet families in the community, you realise that this “Land of Smiles” is merely a successful image portrayed for promoting tourism. The reality is much grimmer.

Recent statistics suggest that more than one in 100 adults in this country of 65 million people is infected with HIV, and AIDS has become a leading cause of death. Adding in the recent worldwide economic downturn affecting tourism numbers, life for those in the community of Hang Dong may get worse before it gets better.

However, hope still shines. Staff and workers I visited with at the First Priority Development Foundation, a community development faith-based organisation, are making a significant difference.

Like many other FBOs, they are close to the action and can provide an holistic approach to rebuilding lives, addressing spiritual, practical and social needs.

They discovered that the grandfather with two grandchildren could afford only one bicycle, so the girls would take turns going to school.

The foundation bought a second bike. Now, both girls can go to school each day. As my friend said, “That’s not just a bike then — it’s a future.”

On another visit, a worker from the foundation discovered the 87-year-old eating sugar, for she had run out of food and had no one around to buy her more. They responded by filling several shopping bags with food. They fixed up housing, cared for her — and prayed with her.

Those last four words can make people uncomfortable. After all, in our current social climate, it can be socially unacceptable to come out in support of FBOs or anything with religious connections. In fact, the Australian Human Rights Commission has launched a new inquiry called Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century. It asks such questions as whether “religious or faith-based groups have undue influence over government”.

In an interesting conjunction to this, we discover in a report co-published by UNICEF, that “international agencies are increasingly recognising the role of religious organisations in establishing effective HIV/AIDS interventions. Despite some negative perceptions of their role and impact, faith-based organisations are among the most viable institutions at local and national levels and have developed experience in addressing the multi-dimensional impact of AIDS and its particular impact on children”.

Secular Westerners often wish that FBOs leave out the praying bit. However, that may be the very thing which energises these organisations to address the consequences of nations stricken with AIDS.

Ruth Limkin