ROSCOMMON-BORN MISSIONARY IN BRAZIL, SR MARGARET HOSTY SSL, HAS BEEN CARING FOR HIV/AIDS VICTIMS AND THEIR FAMILIES FOR MORE THAN 25 YEARS
INTERVIEW BY ANNE STAUNTON AND PAT O’SULLIVAN
Sr Margaret, you were a pastoral worker in a parish without a resident priest on the outskirts of Goiania, a large city in Midwest Brazil, as part of the Sisters of St Louis missionary team. Could you tell us a little about the circumstances that led you to found an NGO in support of HIV/AIDS victims and their families 25 years ago?
I began working with people living with HIV/ AIDS in 1993 after a good friend died as a consequence of the virus. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought of getting into such work. I’m a trained teacher and had taught in Los Angeles and even for a little while in Brazil. In the early years, I also did pastoral work in the periphery of the city where we lived. A fellow worker John (fictious name), a seminarian, became mysteriously and seriously ill. When I expressed a wish to visit him at the seminary, I sensed a reluctance and hesitancy on the part of the rector. After much insistence I finally succeeded in visiting him and he eventually told me he was HIV positive. At the time, early ‘90s, I knew very little about HIV or AIDS. Shortly after visiting John at the seminary, he was admitted to a hospital where I was able to visit him every day. My care and love for my friend enabled me to overcome my fear and lack of information. I then realised that I was not the only one who lacked information about HIV. The rector of the seminary seemed to be in the same situation! The whole experience taught me an awful lot. The rector, myself and so many others lacked accurate and vital information – and we are university graduates! Fear and lack of information can lead to discrimination, prejudice, and even to poor judgment and erroneous decisions.
John died about three months after he was diagnosed. At the time I thought to myself “You did what you could for him… now get on with your life and the pastoral work in the parish.” However, a voice within me said “You knew almost nothing about AIDS a few months ago. You saw the discrimination that John suffered. So many are ill-informed and discriminate as a result. You need to do something about this.” And that was how I got into working with and for people living with HIV and AIDS and founded the NGO – the AAVE Group – 25 years ago.
What are the main challenges of your service users and what are the day-to-day activities of the AAVE Centre?
The service users (people infected or affected by HIV) at the AAVE Centre are all poor, unemployed or self-employed with little or no formal education. So, without a doubt their main preoccupation is how to put food on the table during these Covid times. There is constant worry about household expenses: cooking gas, rent, utility bills, medications which the state does not supply, and bus fares. At the beginning of the school year, which is January here in Brazil, there is the added expense of uniforms and school supplies for children. At AAVE, we get unending requests to help pay these expenses. We do what we can – which depends on the donations we receive. We try to offer opportunities and provide skills training; as Bishop Helder Camara said, quoting a Chinese proverb, “teach them how to fish” rather than giving handouts. Our centre provides income-generating activities such as computer classes, arts and crafts, a nail design course, a recycling project. We also donate second-hand clothes which the service users can sell in order to bring in an income. We consistently try to help people become more independent. We are motivated and influenced by Jesus’ words “I have come that they may have life, life in abundance” (Jn 10:10) and “That all may be one” (Jn 17:21) which is also the motto of the St Louis Sisters.
Tell us about the team you work with to respond to today’s challenges.
At AAVE, we employ professionals to provide the courses and skills training I mentioned. We also have a lawyer to enable the protection of human rights and entitlements, a social worker and a psychotherapist. We also have volunteer professionals but unfortunately not enough to meet the day-to-day demands at the centre. Our work at AAVE covers three areas:
• Welcoming and supporting people living with HIV/AIDS, through the classes and activities held at the AAVE Centre; • Disseminating accurate information in the community about HIV/AIDS and its prevention, through education/ prevention work in schools, church groups, businesses, factories – wherever we get an opportunity. We also avail of mass events during World AIDS Day, Carnaval, Independence Day, Corpus Christi, World Day of the Poor, etc;
• Advocacy and the defence of human rights, which means questioning and at times contesting public policies or challenging hospital administration. As human rights are often infringed or even denied, we affirm the right to health care, medication, powdered milk formula for babies born to HIV+ mothers (who must not breastfeed). Antônio Guterres, secretary general of the World Health Organization, says that, if we are to end AIDS, no one can be left behind. However, what we see in practice is that the poor are often left behind. In Brazil, those who live with HIV/AIDS are listed among the nobodies of society, especially if they are poor, female, homosexual, black or belong to a minority group.
While AAVE is an NGO, you and your team are also involved in the pastoral care of seropositive people and their families. What does that involve at parish and diocesan levels?
Yes, we are involved in the pastoral care of seropositive people, some of whom are Catholic, some not. We don´t discriminate! We visit people in their homes, in hospital and in prison. One member of the AAVE team is also the coordinator of the AIDS Pastoral Ministry at diocesan level, while another is a member of the National Coordination of the AIDS Pastoral Ministry within the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference. So yes, AAVE is a nongovernmental organisation but from the very beginning and throughout our 25 years of service, we have enjoyed the solid support of the Catholic Church and have provided an invaluable service to its seropositive members.
Since the beginning, many parishes in the Archdiocese of Goiania have been contributing financially to the AIDS Pastoral Ministry on a monthly basis while others have been providing basic food baskets. With Covid restrictions, many of these very vulnerable people have lost their already meagre sources of income. So, we have often called our local Archbishop: “Dom Washington, our people are hungry. We need food.” His response has always been extremely positive. Since the onset of the pandemic, the AIDS Pastoral Ministry together with AAVE have delivered over 2,000 food baskets which in truth have come either directly or indirectly from the Catholic Church.
Prior to the pandemic, the diocesan AIDS ministry coordinator visited the various parishes explaining the objectives of the Pastoral Ministry, invited parish members to get involved in the work and provided training for those who accepted the invitation. The work of the national coordinator was similar, visiting the 12 dioceses in our region and following the same procedure: inviting adherence to the AIDS Pastoral Ministry, training leaders and preparing them in their respective dioceses for their work of supporting those who are seropositive, and providing accurate information about HIV and AIDS. When it is safe to do so, we hope to return to this very important aspect of our engagement.
What are the main challenges you face today?
We face two daunting challenges. The first is the fact that the discrimination and prejudice experienced by people living with HIV leads them to want to hide their condition. They are not willing to publicly admit that they are seropositive. In our advocacy work especially, we need people who are seropositive to talk to the press or on mass media. Finding someone who is openly willing to admit that they live with HIV is a real challenge. I think the longer they stay ‘in the closet’ as it were, the longer we are going to have to live with discrimination and prejudice.
The second great challenge is finding the funds we need to keep AAVE up and running. We depend 100 per cent on donations and grants. Unlike some previous Brazilian governments, our present incumbent is definitely not very supportive of the poor or minorities.
Can we in Ireland do anything to help?
Both Misean Cara (which receives financial aid from the Irish government) and Trócaire are very supportive of our work here at AAVE, as are many friends and family members. So, please continue your prayers for us; in your own neighbourhood and community, be supportive of those whom you know to be living with HIV. If you could make a donation for our work, we would be very grateful. Know that your valuable contribution would only be used to help those most in need.
Anne Staunton, originally from Mayo, and Limerick-born Pat O’Sullivan are retired teachers and translators and former missionaries in Midwest, Brazil.