Agatha is a woman with a simple story. She is a widow who finds her greatest joy in her Catholic faith and in her daughter, Yoani. But her faithful motherhood is having an outsized effect on the country of East Timor's health care services.
Yoani is now known as Sister Mary Yoani. Her order, the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, helps people living with HIV in East Timor, an island country in the southernmost end of the Indonesian archipelago. She leads or touches much of the order's HIV work in the country. But as she describes her journey toward joining a religious order, it's apparent how great a debt the local HIV care and treatment community owes to Agatha as well.
"I am an only child," says Sister Yoani on a warm morning in the capital city of Dili. "My extended family expected me to have a family of my own. When I began talking about spiritual formation and joining a religious order, they were against me. It was so difficult."
"My mother is the only person who stood with me," she says. "She said that if becoming a nun would make me happy, she would support me. It took so much courage for her to stand up to the other family members and my father, who wanted me to take a different path."
After deciding on a religious life, Sister Yoani found her way to caring and advocating for some of the most hidden and vulnerable people in East Timor. The number of people with HIV in the country is small. Still, the caseload stretches existing services. Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters helps fill the gap between official services and the additional needs of those living with HIV, such as transportation to medical appointments or a place to stay for people from the provinces seeking treatment in the capital. Most important, though, the order is helping to decrease the stigma and fear many Timorese have of people with HIV.
'And Yet We Eat With Them'
Catholic Relief Services supports Sister Yoani's work in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. Most recently, she oversaw construction of a home for people who must travel long distances to the capital for medical consultations. The home, she says, "meets a big need for people living in rural areas. Now they don't have to worry about where they will sleep before and after seeing a doctor. And they can meet with a counselor at the home to discuss their latest appointment, learn more about their HIV status and treatment, and get connected to a support group of other people with HIV."
Sister Yoani describes a more subtle benefit for people who stay in the home. "For a night or two," she explains, "they can feel like a regular person. We know their status, and yet we eat with them, use the same dishes and hold their hands. We treat them like any other person. They live in fear of how their community will treat them if their status becomes known, and, here, they get to relax and know that we love them."
The home's residents can take comfort knowing that Sister Yoani is there to rally the HIV care community and fight stigma for the foreseeable future.
"After my father passed away, I thought I would have to leave this work to care for my mother," she says. "I am an only child, and that is considered my responsibility. But when I talked with her, she simply said, 'What we start, we must finish.' She continues to be my strength, just like she was when I first considered a life that was different from what the rest of my family expected."
Agatha is an example of a mother whose "children rise up and call her blessed" (Proverbs 31:28). And, in Agatha's case, that blessing is echoed by the people served by Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, health care providers, government leaders, Church officials and CRS East Timor staff who have the privilege of knowing and working with her daughter.
Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phenom Penh, Cambodia.