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Songs of Hope

Tales of apartheid, photographs of AIDS orphans central focus of World AIDS Day Concert.

Three hundred and sixty South African children are orphaned every day as a result of AIDS, while another 1.1 million children are infected with the disease themselves.

Songs of prayer and hope played in the background while displays of black and white photographs provided faces to attach to staggering statistics during the first World AIDS Day concert at the Lutheran Church of the Abiding Presence on Thursday, Dec. 1.

It was the first concert sponsored by 25:40, a Springfield-based nonprofit organization that raises money for hospitals and clinics which help AIDS-infected children or orphans in South Africa.

"The children we have met are very brave," said Amy Zacaroli, one of the founders of 25:40, along with her husband, Alec. The couple have made several trips to South Africa in the past few years, visiting the clinics and doctors they help support. "Some of the children are caring for younger siblings, some have to travel great distances to care for new relatives. Tonight, we remember them for their struggle and remember, more importantly, their hope."

During the course of the evening, the story of the AIDS pandemic was told, sung and illustrated through a brief history of apartheid, its stormy conclusion and how the early years of the disease were veiled under its controlling grasp.

"AIDS was bubbling under the evil of apartheid," said Amy Zacaroli, noting that one did not cause the other, but that the disease spread rapidly in part because of the lack of health care access under the strict regime.

Two actors, silhouetted on the front wall of the church's sanctuary, read from a transcript of a trial hearing in South Africa in which a woman was testifying about being raped by two white police officers while her cousin watched.

The need for hope and the urge to help fight the disease, which has left 12.1 milllion sub-Saharan children orphans, was underscored in the story Amy Zacaroli told about a child she and her husband have taken to calling Antonio.

"When we first met Antonio, he was 15 months old and very tiny," she said of the AIDS orphan. "He was dressed in white feety pajamas. He smiled only a little, but he whined a lot. By the time he reached his first birthday, he had full-blown AIDS, which had enlarged his organs so much it was impossible for him to crawl, let alone walk."

Over the next year, she said, he caught a case of the chicken pox when it went through the orphanage. She said there was some fear that he would die from the illness because of his weak immune system, but somehow he managed to survive.

"When we revisited the orphanage in August, he was so different," Amy Zacaroli said. "He could stand on his own and I was actually able to see him take his first steps. That was a milestone no one was sure he'd ever make," she said, pointing to a blurry image of a beaming child on unsteady toddler legs.

Amy Zacaroli asked the more than 50 people gathered at the concert to indulge a small request: Dec. 1 is Antonio's birthday, she asked them to sing for him. The audience happily obliged.

The guest for the evening was Graeme Hofmeyr, the son of a doctor the Zacarolis have befriended in South Africa, who flew the 6,000 miles for a short trip to Washington in order to speak at the concert.

Watching the presentation on apartheid "reminded me of some of the darker times in my country's history, but it filled me with pride that we've come through it," he said. "Just as apartheid was overcome, hopefully we can overcome the equally awesome challenge of battling AIDS."

THE DEVASTATION caused by AIDS and HIV "has threatened to undo all of the accomplishment of the past 10 years and do much, much worse," Hofmeyr said, adding that "most people with HIV die a horrible and painful death. But there is hope for the future, because of people like you who have the compassion to help."

Working with 25:40 and the Zacarolis has created a "very personal relationship," Hofmeyr said.

"It matters that people care about things that happen in another part of the world," he said. "It's very easy to care about people you see all the time and quite another when it's people you might never meet. Together we can all do wonderful things," he said.

Many friends of the Zacarolis had volunteered to help them with the concert, including Ben Glass, who served as narrator for the program.

"The important thing about being here tonight is that I live in the sheltered U.S," said Glass. "I didn't understand the relationship between apartheid and AIDS until a few days ago but it makes sense now, seeing how sending black men far away from their family created more poverty and that's what led to this pandemic."

To approach the problem from a "one person at a time" standpoint makes it sees more manageable, he said. "This group has worked so hard and they're really walking the walk to help."

Zoraya Stern, one of the musicians, said the piece she selected to perform, "Water is Wide," reminded her of the hope preached by 25:40.

"Every time I play it, I imagine a river. When it starts out, it's just a trickle," she said, but when it meets up with a larger body of water, "there's a huge expansion, like God opening his arms to embrace people."

At one point in her life, Stern said she never imagined being able to love a child that wasn't her own. But after working with 25:40, "I can't imagine any child having to live without the love of a family."

The concert provided faces to go with empty statistics, said Pastor Mark Olsen of the Peace Lutheran Church of Alexandria. "The numbers alone are overwhelming but it's just so many ones and zeroes. To hear the first person accounts and see the pictures, it makes it so much more real," he said.