A Pilgrim Reflects
Being both a close friend of Father Terry Charlton and long an admirer of and, moreover, inspired by his collaboration with Christian Life Community East Africa, it was with great anticipation that I accepted the invitation to attend the dedication of the new building for Saint Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School in Nairobi in 2010. As the first medical ethicist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, I had been involved in the HIV/AIDS pandemic from the mid-1980s. Although that was an era that lamentably often witnessed open hostility toward and the marginalization of people infected with the virus, it was also a time characterized by the marshalling of extraordinary resources in an effort to combat the disease. Unfortunately a certain complacency appears to have supplanted that initial response in much of the Western world.
Such is not, however, the case in Africa. There the lack of funding, education, and personnel make the scourge of the disease an ever present reality and not just another malady the fodder for research in the sterile setting of major medical centers. It is into that environment that St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School has become a beacon of possibilities. Rising quite literally like a phoenix from the slums of Kibera, the school has offered hope and the promise of a life unencumbered by abject poverty.
The students have suffered the loss of either one or both parents to AIDS-related illness. They live in deplorable circumstances and are often potential victims of sexual predators. Even for the most hardened, the annual pilgrimage constitutes a life changing opportunity to witness the inexorable ravages of the disease as well as the monumental initiatives of the Jesuits of the East Africa Province of the Society of Jesus and their colleagues.
Schooled in the spiritual heritage of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the students of St. Aloysius are prepared—in what can only be described as a miracle—to eventually take their places in the world of commerce, education, and health care quite literally becoming leaders of tomorrow. Capable of pursuing university degrees, the previously unimaginable is being realized in their lives.Now having accompanied the pilgrims several times and preparing to return to Africa in the summer of 2018, the fruit of the industry of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School was first made profoundly clear to me on the occasion of the dedication ceremony in 2010. Welcomed by a young girl who would serve as my guide for the festivities, I asked her if she liked her new school. Brimming with nearly infectious enthusiasm, she assured me that she loved her school. When asked if she was learning many things, she once again bubbled with a blend of happiness and pride. But what was most salient, moving, and heartwarming—if, perhaps, even somewhat heartbreaking—was her response to my inquiry concerning exactly what she was learning. “I am learning to be a woman for others,” she said giving utterance to a cornerstone principle of Jesuit spirituality.
Tears filled my eyes as I marveled at the transformation that had occurred in her life, a transformation made not just possible but real for her and for so many who would otherwise be destined, if not quite literally condemned, to lives of deprivation.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School is a beacon of hope unmitigatedly deserving of our prayers and support. Visiting the school and meeting the students is an unparalleled opportunity to appreciate that life is, indeed, to give. For rich human living is most nobly manifested in deep human giving so that we can all strive to become “men and women for others.”
Daniel G. O’Hare, S.J.