Release date
August 15, 2007

Voices of Angels

August 15, 2007, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia —

The small chapel could barely contain the rhythms of a single drum accompanied by the students' voices. Eight young girls were dressed as angels, complete with silver foil wings. Another group of girls wore outfits reminiscent of cheerleaders. Together, they filled the aisles with a spectacle of color and sound, faith and joy. It was the most beautiful Mass I ever witnessed.

Girls dressed as angels

Eight young girls were dressed as angels, complete with silver foil wings.

The chapel is in Ethiopia. All of the children are HIV-positive and orphaned by AIDS.

It has been about 25 years since HIV and AIDS first came into our consciousness. The pandemic is now recognized as one of the largest global threats to human health. The annual death toll nears 3 million people. The number of new cases reported each year is roughly 4 million. The extreme burden of AIDS falls heaviest upon developing countries.

In Ethiopia, the staggering cost of AIDS is paid in the lives of millions of mothers and fathers. Often, aunts, uncles and other adults who may be unknowingly HIV-positive welcome orphans into their homes, only to die from the disease themselves. As a result, many youngsters, already suffering, are orphaned two or three times during childhood.

In this nation, almost twice as large as the state of Texas, it is estimated that about a million people are living with the disease. AIDS is spreading fastest in the cities. Nearly 10 million people live in the capital, Addis Ababa, and 12 percent of them are HIV-positive. The streets are teeming with people who have fled rural Ethiopia in search of a better life for themselves and their families in the city. Most don't get their wish. Jobs are scarce, and few people earn more than a dollar a day. Unemployment is widespread. Poverty and homelessness make people even more susceptible to disease.

The Gift of Love

Because of the great need in Addis, the Missionaries of Charity have created a home and school on the outskirts of the city. The sisters of the religious order founded by Mother Teresa and their staff work tirelessly, day and night, to provide education, care, counseling and love to children and teens at a facility called the Gift of Love, which is supported by Catholic Relief Services and other donors. Gift of Love is a half-hour drive from CRS headquarters in Addis and home for more than 400 children who face each day with the double burden of being orphaned and HIV-positive.

Sister Jan Maria

Sister Jan Maria surrounded by children at Gift of Love.

The reason for the name Gift of Love was apparent to me as I met these amazing children. Given the overwhelming odds against them, it is hard to believe that their hearts could muster any hope. But I learned what these courageous youngsters can teach us about heart and hope when I attended Sunday Mass with them. Their weekly ritual is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit, made complete by the angelic hymns of their choir.

The depth of the children's faith was poignantly shared by Sister Jan Maria of the Missionaries of Charity. She told us about a 12-year-old boy who had been enduring some difficult days in his struggle with HIV. He had not been well for some time. One morning, the sister checked on him and his face was aglow. He was beaming and bright. Sister Jan Maria was amazed at the change in his appearance and asked him how he was doing.

The boy said, "Sister, I am fine. Tonight, I am going to die." She could not believe her ears. "Aren't you afraid of dying?" she asked. The boy assured her, "Why should I be afraid or sad? You have given me so much. You have given me faith and I believe I will meet God this evening."

With tears running down her face, Sister Jan Maria told us that his prophecy had come true. My eyes were damp, too, and I knew that every day something miraculous happens at the Gift of Love and the little chapel filled with so much heart.