India Visit Brings Human Face of HIV Into Focus

A group of students from Austin, TX, recently visited CRS’ HIV and AIDS program in India. Liza Manjarrez, a campus minister who accompanied them, reflects on the trip:

For over a year, I had been planning an international immersion trip to India. The trip, for students, would focus on building community, doing justice, living simply, and engaging spiritually.

As the assistant director of Campus Ministry at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, I spend a lot of time talking to college students about the mission and purpose of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in order to expose them to social justice teaching, the needs of the poor overseas and the work of the Church in the face of injustice.

Talking about issues of justice and meeting the poor face to face, as brother and sister in Christ, however, are two very different things. So, when I had the opportunity to take a group of students to see CRS programming first-hand in India, I knew they would have an experience of a lifetime; and the collaboration with CRS proved more fruitful than we ever could have imagined.

The CRS India Country Program arranged for the group of six students and me to visit an HIV and AIDS program in Mysore that is implemented by one of CRS’ partners. After a traditional Indian welcome, we were invited into a packed living room where we had the opportunity to hear from people with HIV and AIDS who are involved in their village networks. In the numerous villages surrounding Mysore, CRS-trained “animators” gather small groups of people to do everything from formal presentations on the disease to educational dramas to facilitating support group meetings for those affected by the disease.

The difference the program has made in their lives is unquestionable. The program’s clear and understandable approach to education has empowered them and improved the quality of their lives. There was a keen sense of respect, pride, and dignity that could be felt in the room as Antony Vivek, of CRS India, explained the programs to us.

We heard a story from a young woman who had been abandoned by her husband after she was diagnosed HIV positive. Because of lack of treatment and malnutrition she was on the brink of death. Through the quick intervention of CRS, she was given treatment and support, and was introduced into a community of people sharing a similar situation. She is now one of the most outspoken members of her village group and educates others on the disease and transmission prevention.

We were also very touched by the children we met. While not the original intention of the program, the local CRS coordinators saw the need for housing for the children because many were orphaned and living on the street. SNEHA (meaning friendship or love) now houses 14 orphans.

While I always seek to educate others about the importance of justice, love and solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, nothing compares to the human interaction and lived experience my students had in India. We now have a deeper understanding of what it means to be one human family. As one of the students said, “The issue [HIV and AIDS] seemed so insurmountable when we talked about coming here to visit. I wondered ‘How could anyone really make a difference?’ Now I see that there are people making a difference in the lives of others every day. It challenges me to find the way I am called to serve others and work for justice.”

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