A Death in Angola

A team of journalists from
United Methodist Communications returned from Angola today. They visited
clinics and hospitals. At one hospital they were present when an infant died of
malaria, a tragedy that occurs every 30-seconds somewhere in the developing

Today I had a sobering moment when a staff person told me of the experiences of a team of our journalists last week in Angola. They went to document health delivery by The United Methodist Church there.

At one hospital they watched as doctors worked over an infant whose breathing was labored. Observing the seriousness of the situation, they withdrew. But only minutes after leaving they learned that little Domingos Antonic had died. Having been brought to the hospital after malaria had begun to affect him, it was too late for effective treatment.

When I started working in international journalism for the church, one of the first and most difficult experiences I had was witnessing the death of an infant in the remote mountains of Honduras in a village called Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water). The baby was malnourished and riven with worms. His immune system was so compromised that a simple infection blossomed into a full blown, life-threatening illness. As his mother cradled him in her arms in a concrete block clinic with a corrugated tin roof, the child’s labored breathing stopped and life slipped away.

Hearing of the child in Angola today brought back memories of that day in Honduras, and many other places I recall because they are marked by death.

I was present in a critical care room in a Cuban pediatric hospital as doctors squeezed a rubber diaphram like a bellows to help a child breathe. They worked quietly and methodically. The U.S. embargo on medical equipment patented in the U.S. meant that much needed supplies were not available. I watched as the team leaning over the baby began to slowly, reluctantly withdraw the breathing apparatus. I saw a doctor stand upright, take off his surgical cap, rub his eyes, breathe deeply and step backward. The child’s lungs could not function adequately and he stopped breathing and life was gone. Death came so quietly.

Once I sat in a refugee camp outside the town of Luuqh in Somalia in the cool morning air before sweltering heat took hold and watched a young mother, father and grandmother carry a sick baby to the camp clinic. It was a simple pole structure with plastic sheeting laid across thin wood striplings. The baby’s breathing was already labored by the time the parents got her to the clinic. They sat on the ground by a thatch fence as an interpreter ran to fetch a doctor. Moments later I heard the doctor curse and saw him turn and put his hands to his head in a gesture of frustration and exasperation. The baby’s condition was too grave for treatment and she died as the doctor started to examine her. His curse was as much a prayer borne of frustration and helplessness as it was an expletive.

In Cambodia after the fall of Pol Pot, a reign of genocide that resulted in the violent deaths of one-quarter of the population and laid waste to the country, I walked through a hospital with a stainless steel sterilizer sitting up-ended on a couple of rocks with a wood fire underneath. Once it sterilized surgical instruments. Now it was a huge pot for boiling water. A teen-age boy lay on a worn-out metal frame bed, his gaze unfocused, his face expressionless. He was at the end stage of malaria. But he had come to the hospital because the water buffalo upon which he was riding had stepped on a land mine and the boy’s leg was blown away. The malaria was hidden, but it had become a greater threat than the surgery. The Swedish Red Cross surgeon with whom I talked said, “I’ve done all I can do. It’s a matter of time.” As we walked through the hospital, the boy died.

In a camp in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, I watched as young men carried small bodies wrapped in white cotton cloth to a burial ground. One after another in a steady stream. Famine and drought had brought malnutrition and starvation, along with diseases that became life-threatening. In a make-shift clinic, children and adults coughed, lay motionless and expired as health workers feverishly attended to them. It was a scene from Hell. I will never forget those white-wrapped bodies.

I tell you these things not to depress you (yet I know it is depressing) but to explain that this is still happening; perhaps in different locations, but to people trapped in the same circumstances; children, the poor, those displaced by war, famine, drought, the vulnerable, powerless people who, when life is good, struggle to contend with demonic forces that would rob them of dignity, hope and life itself.

They are the faces that embody the statistics that so easily fall from our tongues–a child dies every thirty seconds of malaria, for example. Every one of these children has a face and a name. In the dark of night, I see their faces and they haunt me. I can’t sleep.

When this happens I get up, read and say a prayer that usually goes something like this:

Why do you let this happen?
How long must this go on?

And the response is unsettling:

Why do you let this happen?
How long must this go on?

I don’t like that answer. But the more I probe the biblical texts and listen to the people themselves, I’m compelled to consider our responsibility for each other in the human community under God; I am compelled to consider and act. It’s not as if I alone can do much. But that isn’t the point. Knowing these circumstances, if I don’t do what I can I will have failed my self, those with whom I share time on this earth, and the Creator of us all.

And we have ways to help. Through the community-based primary health care efforts of the General Board of Global Ministries Health and Welfare Ministries, the ecumenical Church World Service and the various agencies of the United Nations.

God did not create the earth to be in chaos.
Isaiah 44: 18-19

Can a mother forget the infant at her breast,
walk away from the baby she bore?
But even if mothers forget,
I’d never forget you.
Look, I’ve written your names on the backs of my hands.

Isaiah 49:14-16

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Romans 14: 7-8

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Romans 8:38-39

For I am convincd that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus who is our Lord.
Romans 8: 38-39

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to see you? Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me–you did it to me.’
Matthew 25:34-40 The Message

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