I will never forget visiting the homes of people living with HIV in Dublin for the first time. I was deeply moved to hear their heart-breaking stories. Twenty years ago in many cities around the world, there was ignorance, prejudice and fear.
One woman told me that she had already buried several of her children because of AIDS and several more were also infected with HIV. Three generations within the family were affected, from young children to grandparents.
At that time, as in London, many community workers were reluctant to look after people with HIV, especially if drug use was part of the picture, yet members of local churches were visiting regularly, doing whatever they could to provide help.
Meeting Terrie Colman-Black was an inspiration.
Her passion to make a difference shone like a bright light, encouraging others to get involved, to show the unconditional love of God. We have seen a generation of other care workers over the years – also in prevention work.
In London, we had a similar story in a way: people were dying badly, rejected often by local communities and professionals. We had to do something.
AIDS has a parallel with leprosy: in the time of Jesus, people thought it was linked to having lived a bad life, and lepers were cast out of communities. People were afraid to go near, or to touch. But Jesus did touch. Jesus showed accepting love, and that became our guiding principle.
The first person with AIDS I met in London in 1987 was dying on his own in a hospital side room, on a ward full of people who were sick because of a preventable infection.
A small group of us soon trained 50 volunteers, working from our family home in West London, providing home support and going into schools with a life-saving message. Within two years there were teams across the UK – from Dundee to Brighton and across the whole of London.
In 1990 ACET programs began in Uganda, Romania and Thailand as Christians from different cultures responded as part of a people movement. Today you will also find many hundreds of ACET workers across Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and many other nations, with many thousands trained from other organisations, and hundreds of thousands of manuals, videos, books and other resources distributed. All share common values, vision and calling – and an urgent determination to see an end to AIDS.
AIDS goes in and out of the headlines, but the pandemic continues to impact tens of millions of lives with over 2 million new infections every year, many of which are children.
A lot has changed for the better over the last 20 years: new treatments mean that people with HIV can now live for many years, and access is improving in the poorest nations. There is less ignorance, and less fear.
The good news is that in many hardest-hit communities, infection rates have been falling. Prevention works! However the economic crisis has meant cuts in government funding in Ireland and in other nations, and there is a constant risk that we will go backwards in the struggle with HIV.
One of the most inspiring parts of the ACET story has been how people linked to one country programme, have helped support those in another part of the world.
A wonderful example of this has been the link between Ireland and Zimbabwe. Every school day, over 2,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Zimbabwe are fed a hot meal, while others have school fees paid, and many more adults sick with HIV are visited at home. This is made possible by the generous and faithful support each month of people in Ireland, through the Matilda project which was first started by Richard and Wendy Phillips.
Indeed, it is probably true to say that one of the greatest impact of those working with ACET Ireland, has been on the lives of those in the very poorest rural communities, living many thousands of miles away.