My little brother is HIV+. My precious, joyful, kind-hearted 11-year-old little brother is infected with the most feared and stigmatized disease of our time. He likely contracted the disease from his biological mother shortly after birth. It is likely his body, now growing more heartily and healthy than ever before, has never known a day without this infection.
But he hasn’t always been my brother. In fact, for far too many years, his fight for survival was a lonely one. Having lost both of his parents to AIDS by the age of one, my brother was cared for by a street gang of children in an African township before being picked up by officials and bounced between multiple orphanages throughout his homeland.
Our journey to my brother began when I spent a year working at an orphan village for HIV+ children. When I first announced I would be leaving home to work in this rural African region where some estimate 90% of the adult population lives with HIV, my parents were concerned to say the least. How was I going to stay safe? How was I going to ensure I didn’t become infected as well?
Yet, once I arrived and began to introduce them via email and Skype to the people of my village, their fear was immediately replaced by resolution. Resolution to do something. Resolution to not let one more child whose life could be changed go by the wayside due to fear or discomfort. The Lord moved my parents to fill their empty nest with a child in need of a new family. And they resolved that if they were going to adopt as they approached 60 years old, they were going to adopt the child at the bottom of every waiting child list: a 9 year old boy with HIV+.
My father recalls, “Every close Christian friend with whom we spoke told us not to do it. We finally quit asking family and friends about it and determined to just listen to our hearts. The only reason we could come up with to not adopt was pure selfishness. We had the ability to give a child what he didn’t have – a family. After hearing story after story from my daughter of children in her village dying of AIDS, we knew we had to act. God used the short lives of these children to open our eyes to our son.”And now thanks to a wonderful team of doctors and new antiretroviral drugs, my brother’s life expectancy is the same as yours and mine. Yes, he will still have to face the stigma of being “infected,” and yes, he will have to be careful and compliant with his medication and diet, but he’s flourishing more than many of us ever will.
My once fearful, but ever faithful mother sums up the experience of many adopted moms of children with special needs:
“Certainly when you are first exposed to children with HIV, there is fear involved. If for no other reason than we live in a country where this is not common and there is little education on the recent improvements in care of children with HIV. Our son was nine and in an orphanage in South Africa when our family brought him home. You wonder, “Will my child be excluded or shunned by family, friends, or others? Will I be exposing others to a dangerous disease?” Don’t let fear keep you from a great adventure. Once you realize that this is just a child who needs love and medicine, you begin to think that I can offer that. My son has given me the greatest gift. As I watched my son realize he is loved and he has value, I was given a glimpse of what our adoption into God’s family looks like.
I researched and learned a lot about HIV when we brought our son home, and I can honestly say that other than making a few doctor visits and monthly stops at the pharmacy, this disease has not stopped our child from anything – He is one of the greatest blessings in our lives. HIV or not, he will do GREAT things in the Lord!”
It would be truly tragic if you read this and think that we stepped in to save my brother’s life; that we swooped in with our wallets and our western drugs and saved the life of my little brother. What we did, in truth, was all too easy. We “sacrificed” a few nice meals and new clothes, sat in a few meetings, filled out several days’ worth of paperwork, and put one more plate at the dinner table.
Yet the truth is, my brother saved us. He saved us from drowning in our American dream, from a life spent hiding behind sterile walls, superficial ambitions, and empty bucket lists. He taught us that what we should truly fear is not the transmission of a physical virus, no matter how perilous it may be. But instead we should ultimately fear the state of our hearts if we allow them to be unmoved by the suffering of this world.
When we ignore the lonely cries of our brothers and sisters around the world who are dying of HIV, we are not only denying them the dignity of healing and comfort, but we are denying ourselves the opportunity to have our lives beautifully and eternally wrecked by divine strength that is born of such extreme human suffering.
We have published this piece anonymously to protect the identity of the child involved.