Room at the Inn

by Fr. Malachy Smyth
November 29, 2010

A Shelter for HIV/AIDS Patients

Columban Sr. Miriam Cousins began her ministry in Korea in 1971 and today is working with AIDS patients in a number of shelters she set up to accommodate them. Her original intention was to counsel the patients living with HIV/AIDS, not to set up a shelter for them. She had been working in an area known for prostitution and there ran a little shelter for women.

Columban Father, catholic priest, catholic missionary

Fr. Malachy Smyth

After many years in Korea, Fr. Malachy Smyth now lives in Ireland.

Read more about the work of the Columban Fathers in Korea

One day at the shelter Sr. Miriam was asked to meet with someone, and she said yes. When the person arrived for the meeting, it was a man; the shelter that Sr. Miriam was running was for women only. The shelter had only three small rooms, and there were already eight women there. But she had been preparing a small room in the yard by converting a storeroom into a prayer room because there was nowhere in the house to escape for a bit of peace and quiet.

When the call came from the man who was HIV positive and looking for shelter, she was in the process of putting up wallpaper on what was to be their prayer room. So, in the confusion of the moment, she decided to house the man in the prayer room for a few days until she could decide what to do. She started to make phone calls around to arrange to have him moved to another place, but none of the institutes she contacted were ready to take a patient with HIV.

Mass celebrated on World AIDS Day

Mass celebrated on World AIDS Day

After about five weeks she went to see the late Cardinal Kim, who expressed surprise that she had a man staying in the little house. The Cardinal had already visited the house and saw the work Sister Miriam was doing with the prostitutes, so he listened very closely to what she was saying. When she had finished the Cardinal said he couldn’t help her immediately but that he would talk to the Bishop and to Catholic Social Services. A week later a phone call came from the office of the social services saying they would help, but that it could not be much.

In the meantime, Sr. Miriam had scouted around and had found a small two-room house for sale. With help from Catholic Social Services together with donations she had received, they were able to buy the house which became the first shelter for HIV/AIDS patients. Within eighteen months, she was able to raise enough funds to buy a larger house. At the same time Sr. Miriam was still working with the people caught up in prostitution and the two jobs were proving to be a bit too much. She felt called to concentrate on the HIV/AIDS patients full time.

Eventually she opened up the shelters to anyone with HIV/AIDS, both male and female. Within a year, Sr. Miriam purchased another larger house with room to accommodate children as well. As time went by she began to see that there were other men and women who were HIV positive in addition to having physical or mental disabilities who were in urgent need of help. At this point she made the transition to accommodate these people as well.

Later, a chiropractor came along who wanted to be associated with the work, and it was a great boost for the rehabilitation work when he joined the program. Aside from the misconception that AIDS is a disease (it is a virus that causes the immune system to stop working properly, thus leaving the person vulnerable to disease), fear is the biggest problem for patients. It is also the biggest problem for Sr. Miriam and staff because they have to keep a low profile about the work. For example, even the Catholics in their area don’t know they are taking care of people with AIDS.

Local and Church leaders at the World AIDS Day 2010 celebration

Local and Church leaders at the World AIDS Day 2010 celebration

It is believed that if the neighbors knew about the patients, the neighbors would assume that everyone coming and going from the house had AIDS. Fearing exposure to the virus, people in the area would not tolerate the program. The staff and the patients struggle with keeping the true purpose of the shelter a secret.

When someone is first diagnosed with HIV/AIDS they wonder who to tell and who shouldn’t be trusted. Sometimes a family member is the last person they would tell.

The fear of contracting AIDS is very strong, and the lack of real information is a big problem. One person thought she could get it from a handshake, another person was afraid to use a public phone in fear of contracting it that way. Sister Miriam goes on to explain, “I have lived with AIDS patients now for ten years, and I have no fear of contracting the illness. We live together, we eat together – there is no way you can get AIDS with ordinary living.”

In speaking about the HIV/AIDS patients’ attitudes about their illness Sr. Miriam affirms that, “they have taken on society’s approach, which unfortunately is: keep them at a distance. The patient has bought into this and stays at a distance. There is a fear of breaking out, a fear of talking. The other thing is that they would blame themselves for getting this illness, for getting infected. When they are first diagnosed, many young people often quit their jobs, because they can’t face their peers knowing they have this problem. Sometimes they live in denial, at times up to a year, before they can accept the fact that they have AIDS and must live with it. It is still very much within the gay community in Korea. It happens there first. They haven’t any close family ties a lot of the times, because of the gay issue.”

In 2007, Church involvement in the whole area of HIV/AIDS increased as local churches began to support the work as a collective body. Many other religious groups have also become involved in the meantime, setting up shelters and living with the HIV/AIDS patients. There is a meeting once a month wherein the different groups come together to share experiences. Catholic Social Services in Seoul, which is a very big organization, has undertaken to support the ministry as well. They are also encouraging the local papers, radio and television stations to really focus and assist in the ongoing information and education necessary to combat the spread of AIDS in Korea.

Worldwide, HIV/AIDS is a serious problem. While significant advances in medications have improved the lives of those with the virus, HIV/AIDS remains incurable. It is the work of Sr. Miriam, and others like her throughout the world, which provides not only care and treatment to HIV/AIDS patients but also a tangible reminder of God’s love for all.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Columban Mission.