April 3-9, 2003
‘I Will Not Die’
By Father Michael Bassano,MM/ SUN contributing writer
Father Michael Bassano offers compassion, service and love at HIV/AIDS shelter
Easter greetings from Thailand. I have had the privilege of going regularly to a Buddhist temple in the country mountainside of Lopburi, a city just two hours north of Bangkok. The temple is called “WAT PHRABAT NAMPU” which means “a fountain at the Holy Feet of the Buddha.” At this temple over 150 people suffering from HIV/AIDS find shelter and a place to live before they die. Most of them are brought here by their families who can no longer care for them. Others are released from a nearby hospital with no one to care for them while others simply arrive at the doorstep of the temple saying, “No one wants me because I have HIV/AIDS, will you take me in?” Most of these people are young adults between the ages of 20 to 35. They come here to find acceptance, compassion and love. About 50 of them are still in pretty good health and so live together in pairs of two (men with men, women with women except for the married couples who, of course, live together) in little bungalow huts around the temple area. The remaining 100 people are sheltered in the two main hospice ward buildings and are very sick. About two people die every day. In 2002, around 554 people were able to die in peace here surrounded by the care of the Buddhist monks, the medical staff and the many Thai and foreign volunteers like myself who come to help and share our presence with them at this difficult moment in their lives.
I have been visiting the temple since November of 2002 and have come to love and accept these people as my brothers and sisters. Along with the medical team and the other volunteers, I have learned how to give massages, to bathe them as well as to change diapers, but most of all to be their servant and friend, being present to them, assuring them of their dignity and value as human beings.
It was at the temple where I met Pannada, a young 29-year-old Thai woman who has HIV/AIDS. She has a family, is married and has an eight-year-old daughter. Pannada came here because her family could no longer care for her. They brought her here but do not come to visit her very often. One day as I was taking care of her, spending time with her, she asked me if I would be her “father,” since her own family had abandoned her. Moved emotionally, I told her “yes” since I was already a father as a priest, she could be my “adopted” daughter. When I would come to visit all the others on the ward, as soon as she heard my voice she would call out my name, sit up in her bed and open her arms to embrace me. When I had to go back to Bangkok one day she told me to have a safe journey and to be sure to come back and visit her and everyone there. Pannada then said something I shall never forget. She said, “I will not die until you come back to see me.” I have recently been back to be with the people and visit Pannada who always calls my name and opens her arms to receive me. She is still in fairly good health although thin and frail.
When Jesus rose from the dead his first words were those of peace. True followers of Jesus are peacemakers not warmakers. Jesus now lives in us. May our lives be a reflection of peace and compassion to all people. Only then can the celebration of Easter have meaning.