The Common Good

His Name is Potlako

His name is Potlako. Potlako means "earlier than expected," I suppose he was named Potlako because he was either a premature baby or he followed soon -- too soon -- after his elder brother. Potlako was born earlier than expected!

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Potlako is being buried today -- buried earlier than expected. A child who had just learned how to walk and was still learning how to talk. Potlako died last week of AIDS. He died earlier than expected, just like his mother died earlier than expected in November from AIDS, and just like his auntie will also die earlier than expected from AIDS.

Potlako's grandmother, Mrs. Mnisi, should never have had to attend her daughter's funeral, nor should she have to attend her grandson's funeral, nor should she be preparing to attend her second daughter's funeral, but she has and she will. The price of Mrs. Mnisi's generation to grow up before HIV/AIDS was ever heard of, is that they must bury their children, and children's children potlako -- earlier than expected!

As I entered Mrs. Mnisi's home with Simanga, my colleague this week, I was aware that the text from Luke's gospel for this Sunday records Jesus' spirit-induced-mission-statement, and the mission statement of all who dare to call him Lord: to be carriers of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. I must confess that the questions and trauma of Job were closer to my heart than the words of Jesus when I left the home of Mrs. Mnisi.

Lying on the floor was Potlako's aunt -- very sick, comforted by a lone candle and other members of Mrs. Mnisi's generation. On the bed lay Potlako's eldest brother, about 10 years old. He is both physically and mentally handicapped. His body is bent. His frame is buckled. His hands are twisted. His tongue is silent. The noises he makes come up from his chest. The noises get attention and signal the beginning of a guessing game to try and determine his need. Yet, his eyes shine and dance in unison with his mouth -- coming together in a beautiful smile -- it is the only ray of light I can see in a home where darkness has settled at mid-day, and the only sign of life in a home where the only thing that never dies is death itself.

Job's self analysis was beginning to make visual sense to me: "If only my misery could be weighed, and all my ills be put together on the scales! But they outweigh the sands of the seas: what wonder then if my words are wild? ... Will no one hear my prayer, will not God himself grant my hope? (Job 6:2-3,8)

And the advice of Job's wife -- "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" -- began to sound more credible. (Job 2:9)

Here we were, Simanga and me, meant to be messengers of good news and all we are able to do was offer to fund the funeral of Potlako. Jesus raised the dead. We organize funerals! Jesus healed the lame and straightened the bent. We stroke the twisted contours of a hand and try to return a smile.

What does it mean to be bearers of good news to the poor? Surely it means more than organizing their funerals! Surely it means more than offering charity! Jesus was crucified for the good news he brought to the poor and you don't get crucified for charity. Charity offends few, it's seeking justice that is offensive and the desire to transform the political structures that sustain injustice and perpetuate murderous HIV/AIDS policies, which are intolerable.

Utterly loving God we seem to be a nation of Job's descendants. How can you set us free from our land of Egypt only to allow us to die in the wilderness of disease? Hear the cries of your people whose suffering has silenced their tears! Shine your light upon those who live in darkness. Unsettle us who are wealthy and healthy to seek justice for the poor. Amen.

Alan Storey (aslowwalk.org) is a Methodist minister from South Africa

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