by Mike Delorenzo

There are few things in this world as powerless as a sick child. Few things as unwanted as an infant girl or boy in Africa, poverty stricken, and dying of AIDS. To some, a child such as this is not worth a moment’s notice. But for the few who do notice, this child has the power to change their heart, and if they are not careful, to change their life.

Hanneke Cost Budde’s notice came about almost accidentally. She arrived in the bustling, dusty town of Shinyanga in 2001, expecting to teach. Already a seasoned missionary in Tanzania for 15 years, jumping into a new assignment should have been easy. But the complicated and providential circumstances that brought a toddler named Mary into her life set in motion a different path altogether.

“This is the little girl that started it all.” Hanneke holds up a plain, but obviously cherished, painting of Mary as we visit together in her backyard. Orphaned and left to die in the hospital, Mary appeared to be little more than a bundle of heartbreak. Hanneke found herself, one day, faced with the option of temporarily taking caring of the child, or simply walking away.

“When I took in the girl,” she remembers, “a friend saw me with a child with AIDS and asked, ‘Do you know what you are doing? Don’t you know you are going to get hurt?’” Hanneke wrestled with the reproof, weighing it against the burden God had placed on her heart and, very plainly, in her lap. She searched herself, testing the line between self sacrifice and self preservation.

“I thought, why shouldn’t I get hurt?”

Because of her unusual response to Mary, and to the disease which eventually took the child’s life at age four, people began to address Hanneke with questions and concerns about AIDS. She found herself inextricably drawn into the plight of widows and orphans in Tanzania, and today she heads up the Africa Inland Church’s AIDS ministry from Shinyanga town. This she does with all the toughness of a seasoned missionary, and all the tenderness of a woman who has cared for a dying child.

AIDS in Shinyanga town is pretty much a snapshot of the disease across Africa. On average, it infects about 8 percent of the population, mostly young adults. The devastation is hard to ignore.

“One school in Kahama had to close down,” Hanneke tells me, “Thirty teachers died in one year.” The local cemetery is almost all new graves. HIV is slowly becoming recognized, locally, as a preventable condition rather than a mysterious curse requiring mysterious cures. However, those who contract it are still ostracized, and it continues to unravel the fabric of the culture. Orphaned children are a new problem for Africa.

“There are no welfare programs here,” Hanneke explains, “The extended family is the place where orphans would traditionally go.” But now even the aunts and uncles are dead or dying, and a child with AIDS is almost never wanted. What Hanneke finds from week to week in a church-run counseling ministry, and through personal home visits around town, is that more and more children are being raised by very elderly grandparents, or by other children.

On the designated day for food distribution at the church, a girl of fourteen comes with three younger siblings in tow. “I can’t take care of these kids anymore,” she pleads, like a desperate mother. Patiently, Hanneke cares first for the young girl before delving into practical solutions. “You must miss your mom and dad?” she asks with the kind of understanding that has seen it before. And the girl remembers and begins to cry.

For this broken family, the challenges are huge. Hanneke listens, gives advice, and takes steps to ensure that the children are not also infected with HIV. Through a network of donors, she provides school supplies, a uniform, and shoes for each of the children so they can attend classes again. She may add them to the growing list of those who need basic food aid to survive. She may even help find a guardian to care for them, but that’s a long shot. “It’s not good for these kids to be on their own. Especially the young girls,” Hanneke remarks. They are at risk of being raped, giving HIV another chance to destroy what’s left.

The AIDS Program here has two sides. Care for widows and orphans is a ministry of “picking up the pieces,” where AIDS has already devastated a home or village. But alongside this effort, through a series of testing and counseling centers, clinics, and local hospitals, Hanneke and her team also fight HIV head on.

In a cramped corner at the church office, cluttered with boxes of files, shoes for the school kids, and an old computer tangled up in its own cords, Hanneke sees “clients” twice a week. Here she listens to new tragedies every day. Many of those who sit at her side are desperate, and may have heard the rumors that this is the place to come when all hope is gone.

“I treat them like human beings,” Hanneke says bluntly when I ask about her secret to ministering among those with AIDS. “I touch them. I hug them.” She makes it sound easy, but I marvel at her methods.

A handsome young couple enters her office. The man looks defeated and his wife, so deeply sad. Someone has just informed them they both have AIDS – that they are going to die – and so they have come here. Hanneke puts aside her paperwork, turns away from the computer and every distraction, and welcomes them in. The whole world shrinks to the distance between her eyes and theirs. She pauses, her face all peace and compassion, and speaks softly in Swahili, “Who created you?”

“Mungu.” God, is the humble reply.

“Our time is in God’s hands,” she tells them with a comforting certitude. “No man can tell you when you are going to die.“ Hanneke counsels them about the virus that has invaded their lives. She explains what lies ahead in their battle with the disease, and reveals that they can still live a healthy life for years to come. There are medicines she will get them access to, vitamins, bits of knowledge that can make a difference. And there is hope. Her eyes, her touch, her voice hint at it. And if the counseling continues and the relationship develops, they will learn more of it. Hope, in Jesus Christ.

“I have read the books. The books say you shouldn’t get close to the patients,” she explains with a touch of delight in her rebellion. “Well, I am willing to go all the way with them.” Working among those who have AIDS, ‘all the way’ means only one thing – death.

“I have seen people die without fear,” she mentions as an afterthought.

But wrapped up in that simple statement is something profound. In AIDS ministry, there is no pretense that everything is going to turn out OK. It is a work of compassion, and preparation. Hanneke’s humble gains in helping people live with AIDS – providing medicines and knowledge to fight the disease, and practical help to hold families together – are often overshadowed by the tremendous odds. That a man, woman, or child can fight and lose this battle without fear is the true miracle. The ability to convey that kind of hope is one of Hanneke’s greatest achievements in this work.

But she probably doesn’t see it that way. Hanneke is doing it because of Mary, the child who first caused her to ask just how much she was willing to give. How much she was willing to hurt.

Down a dusty avenue in Shinyanga town is a colorful little house turned counseling center. Next to it, only a few meters away, is a clinic. And next to the clinic is an AIC church – ablaze with three bright blue crosses painted on the facade. We drove by rather hurriedly with Hanneke, but the sight still caught my eye. Somehow it seemed right. Mind. Body. Soul, all in a row. Like the comprehensive way Jesus ministered to the afflicted in His time, and the way He still does today. His crowning achievement was that we all could face death without fear. And in the process, even He got hurt.