Friday, May 29, 2009

El Viejito

"I've been telling my friends, 'No sé que voy a hacer sin el viejito.'"

Beginning one HIV ministry necessarily entails closing another. This has been much tougher than I ever thought it would be. Over the last three to four months I have been carefully telling my patients that I probably wouldn't see them again, that I was accepting another position to work on HIV in Africa. With some we have literally "walked through the valley of the shadow of death", while others have been patients for many, many years and done well all along. With others we have struggled to find a medication regimen they could tolerate. Some didn't and joined others who died, and some are surviving spouses whose presence reminds me of the dead. Then came the little homeless man who lives in a field not far from the clinic.

I had seen him in February, and he says he's since made an unexpected visit to his parents in Mexico with transportation supplied by Uncle Sam. He had come back just a day or two before his appointment. Before the visit ended I remembered to ask, "I did tell you I was leaving, didn't I?"

"Yes," he responded. "I've been telling all my friends I don't know what I'm going to do without el viejito." El viejito?! The little old man?! At first I thought he was talking about my dear friend and colleague, Harvey Elder, the senior statesman of our group, and maybe a little shorter than I. Then I realized he was talking about me. We both erupted in laughter. The "ito" suffix is in Spanish a term of endearment. It almost always means that one is greatly appreciated. But, I'm not used to thinking of myself as "the little old man". I realized I had graduated once again.

The other time something like this happened to me was in San Antonio when Beth and I had just moved there for me to start medical school. At first appearance in our new church I was asked to teach the teenage Sunday School class, and after evening services that night we went over to the teen center to meet some of the young people. One of the young ladies, Holly Lee, shook my hand and said, "Good to meet you, Brother Smith. Brother Smith?! That was my grandfather! I had hardly ever heard even my dad called that! The splash of cold reality began to sink in that I was no longer a teenager but rather an adult. I was 21 and Holly Lee had respectfully helped me to see myself as I really was, or at least to begin to.

And so now I'm el viejito. The little old man. Or maybe just "the old man" with a nice spin on it. My patient has affectionately helped me, at the threshold of 60, to see myself as I really am, and given me a good laugh at my resistance to the truth about myself. The steps over this threshold of our lives are often painful as we take leave of a great company of colleagues at work, brothers and sisters in our church and others throughout the region, and, yes, long-term patients too, all carefully, purposefully and graciously included in our fellowship by our Father over the last nineteen years. We trust that He will allow el viejito and his wife to assemble with this pleasant company again some day for a wonderful reunion, along with an equally beneficent (even if sometimes painfully so) set of colleagues, friends, brothers and sisters and patients from the ministry which lies ahead.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Moving on . . .

After three years of seeking a church to support us in working on HIV in Africa, the Landmark Church of Christ, Montgomery, Alabama, has accepted our proposal, and has asked us to be based in Malawi, in or near the capital city of Lilongwe. We will be moving from Redlands, California, to Montgomery the middle of June. We'll be visiting Malawi briefly this summer, leaving Montgomery June 26 and leaving Malawi July 9. We'll be holding an HIV seminar in Malawi and making preparations for language study and moving, and then will be traveling to Praetoria, the Republic of South Africa, and Mwanza, Tanzania, holding in each of those cities a two day HIV seminar for church leaders. We will close the summer's travel visiting our son and his family in northern Mozambique before returning to Montgomery on August 8. We will move to Malawi after the first of the year and begin language study in Chi-Chewa, an official language of Malawi along with English. Leaving-taking of one sort or another occupies our every minute, and has been harder than I anticipated. But more about that next post. Visit our web site at for more information on our proposal and timeline.