Maryknoll priest finds accompanying people with HIV/AIDS in Lima, Peru, is approaching God
In a low-ceilinged room of two-tone gray, Maryknoll Father Joseph Fedora spreads his arms and invites Mass-goers to offer their petitions to God. There are prayers for health, for family, and then one man says, “I pray to God for freedom. I’ve been here six years and have nine to go.”
At Communion time, a few men approach the table that serves as an altar. But at the end of the liturgy, when Father Fedora offers to administer the sacrament of the sick, a line forms.
The men who extend their hands reverently for the blessing are doubly stigmatized. Besides being prisoners in the overcrowded penitentiary known as Lurigancho, in a dusty corner of Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital, they have HIV and live in the prison’s infirmary.
“People on the margin, people who have been discriminated against, people suffering not only from physical ailments, but from poverty and mental ailments, have a lot to teach us,” Father Fedora says. That’s a lesson he has learned throughout his missionary journey in Peru, which has taken him from farming communities of Aymara Indians on the shores of Lake Titicaca, more than two miles high in the Andes Mountains, to Lima, where patients in the country’s largest public hospitals and inmates in its biggest prison greet him.
This stage of the priest’s journey began more than two decades ago, when he left his parish in Juli, in Peru’s southern highlands, and returned to his native Los Angeles to work in Maryknoll’s development office. Telling others about the efforts of missioners around the world came naturally to this gifted storyteller, but he missed the pastoral work.
That changed with a phone call that transformed his ministry. A friend’s brother, who was chaplain to aids Project Los Angeles, was moving on and needed a replacement. Father Fedora stepped in. “It was during the worst periods of deaths,” he recalls. The people he saw every day faced not just pain and loss, but also rejection. “HIV was not only a diagnosis; it was a moral judgment,” he explains.
As chaplain to one of Los Angeles’ largest aids support organizations, he kept office hours, visited patients in hospitals and homes. A few years later, he left Los Angeles for journalism studies at Columbia University and a stint at Maryknoll magazine. He returned to Peru in 1998.
“I wanted to work in the city,” the priest says. Because of his experience in Los Angeles, he sought out the few other church workers who ministered among people with HIV/AIDS in Lima.
He found the antiretroviral drugs that had become a lifeline in the United States were unavailable in Peru, a country ravaged by hyperinflation and more than a decade of political violence.
Most of the people with whom he worked bore the triple burden of being poor, ill and stigmatized, suffering from an illness that was surrounded by misconceptions and stereotypes, and almost inevitably ended in death. At the time, the Global Fund to Fight aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria was providing assistance to poor countries to obtain antiretrovirals.
“Before the Global Fund would help, the country had to recognize that it needed help,” Father Fedora says. Peru was slow to respond. As people became aware that life-saving drugs existed but were beyond their reach, they organized and took to the streets. Father Fedora accompanied them, marching in demonstrations and sitting in on strategy sessions where activists planned their lobbying visits to government offices and Congress.
“That’s where theological rubber meets the road,” he says. “You have to address the roots of problems that are causing so much suffering within the population.” Father Fedora made rounds in Lima’s largest hospitals, where the infectious disease wards like the wing called Santa Rosa, in Dos de Mayo Hospital, were filled with patients in the final stages of aids.
Even the medical staff in that ward was shunned by colleagues, says Medalit Lucho, a psychologist who has worked there for 23 years. Father Fedora was one of just a handful of priests and religious who frequented the wards, offering spiritual support that was welcomed by patients and, eventually, by the medical staff.
“We began to see that the sick person is Christ, and that our job is to help him, to serve him,” says Dr. Eduardo Ticona, who works in Santa Rosa. “Adding the spiritual dimension made our work more successful.”
The medical staff also benefited from information Father Fedora brought back from international aids conferences. News of medical advances gave the doctors hope.
In the early 2000s, antiretroviral drugs finally arrived in Peru, initially for children and pregnant women, and then for everyone who needed them. For the first time in more than a decade, people admitted to the Santa Rosa ward walked out of it alive.
Now Father Fedora’s work is accompanying people. Although it still takes him to the margins—the prison, the hospitals, a home for children with HIV—his is now a journey of hope.
His ministry is spiritual and physical. On his monthly visit to the prison infirmary, he celebrates Mass with the hiv-positive prisoners, then shares a meal with them.
Because fighting HIV is more difficult for a person who is malnourished, and prison food is scant and of poor quality, Maryknoll funds a nutrition program that provides balanced meals for 25 hiv-positive inmates. As they regain their health and leave the program, others take their place.
But it is the patients in the open hospital ward, with its lack of privacy and comforts, who constantly remind Father Fedora of the depth of his call to mission.
“It’s humiliating to be sick, especially in one of these public hospitals,” he says. “I try to help them find their dignity. People who are sick invite us to approach God.”
He moves quietly from bed to bed, greeting each patient with an encouraging word, speaking with family members who hover nearby, clasping the patient’s hand in prayer, administering the sacrament of the sick, offering a blessing.
Each has a story, and Father Fedora remembers them. The soul of his ministry, he says, is “being at the bedside, being present at moments of crisis, being a healing presence, the healing presence of Jesus. My hope is that my attentiveness is a reflection of Jesus for them.”
Barbara Fraser, a former Maryknoll lay missioner from Washington, D.C., now lives and works as a freelance writer in Lima, Peru.