El Salvador: Missionaries and mission

One of the main focuses of CAFOD’s work with poor communities around the world is in HIV and AIDS – it was therefore right that we should spend one day of our time here with ContraSida.

We heard how for 15 years they have been working to improve the lives of people living with HIV, to reduce the risk of new infections, and to advocate for a better response by the state and society.

As with so many HIV projects in developing countries, it is Catholic organisations – and especially religious sisters - who are the key initiators.

Thus, we met the American Maryknoll Missionary sister and doctor who had started the project long before anyone else in the country operated in this field.

When it began, the project had the full support of the Archbishop. Though the current Archbishop does not consider their work a priority, many individual Catholic priests still recognise the critical value of ContraSida.

Parishes (especially the poorest ones that lie alongside the railway tracks) often invite them to work with their parishioners.

General rates of HIV infection in El Salvador are relatively low at less than 2%. But neighbouring Honduras has very high rates; so one of the key aims of the work of ContraSida is in prevention.

We got to know their approach, not through a PowerPoint presentation, but through taking part in the kinds of participatory activities that are their hallmark.

Through dance, drama and apparent silliness they get their message across in thought-provoking workshops.

The aim is not just to provide information but, more boldly, to transform Salvadorean society.

One drama we especially enjoyed showed the world turned upside down - the boy was expected to stay at home and prepare the food since it was only his sister’s education that mattered.

Another activity encouraged Salvadorean men to challenge preconceptions of what it meant to be male by drawing a macho man and then sticking on words they would associate.

Needless to say Clare’s otherwise excellent translation skills were tested to the limits by some of the more earthy ideas that were expressed!

But even with the prevention work, there are still people living with HIV and in need of medical, social, financial and psychological help - all offered in a run-down building but with great professionalism and genuine love.

In a country where there is still much stigma attached to HIV and AIDS, this was a relaxed place where everyone including us was welcmed at the family lunch that was provided.

Basic feeding and food distribution was a necessary component of the project. There was also a sewing and embroidery workshop that not only brought in money but also helped restore the dignity of the participants.

As one elderly lady Anna Lilia told us: “My life had no meaning till I came here.”

It can still be hard to raise funds for HIV work though donors are drawn to supporting a particular campaign or a medical care initiative.

What therefore was impressive about CAFOD’s involvement was that we fund the less exciting but highly necessary parts – rent, administration, salaries.

We support them because they do good work but more importantly because we share the same values.

Faith in God and hope for the future was clearly what drove this small team to work so hard. They even spent the first 20 minutes of our day in prayer and reflection.

As Daisy, who runs the livelihoods project, put it: “My whole being is with these people. It is a mission entrusted to me by God.”

Posted by RaymondP

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