Joel Sainton is an itinerant preacher who formed a grassroots agency called APIA to serve the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. He does his work in Port-au-Prince and has continued to serve these people despite the challenges caused by the earthquake on January 12, 2010. Sainton's work involves counseling those with the disease about how and where to get treatment, supporting families who find it difficult to find basic necessities of life, visiting the sick and shut in who are living with the disease, and creating a community of people who can support each other while keeping each other's confidences. Most of the people I met who were part of the organization had not gone public with the fact that they are HIV positive. Indeed, some of them admitted that the only people who knew they were carrying the virus were those in the APIA organization.
Joel Sainton relies on public transportation and his own feet to get around the city to visit the sick. He lives in a small room with his mother in Carrefour. Simply put, he is poor. But he continues to do the work that he believes he has been called to do each day.
Joel Sainton is a tall, lanky man whose smile is a sudden brilliant thing. His eyes reveal the fatigue that must consume him each day, yet it is hard not to see resilience and uncanny faith in those eyes. He enjoys philosophical banter, especially when it comes to questions of theology and faith. He seems like the kind of man who would be happier in a theological college discussing the complexities of the faith. His mode of communication is marked by the desire to teach — he constantly offers illustrations to make his point—and carries his role as a teacher, not with arrogance, but with an urgency about what he has to say. For him theology is not merely academic, but practical, it is rooted in his understanding of faith.
When he was faced with the news that he was HIV positive, it was from what he learned from his theological training that he looked for a way to cope. Sainton speaks with the calm concern for detail and clarity that we expect from a man who trades in language, in speaking of the word of God. On both occasions that we met he was dressed in formal slacks, proper shoes worn from much use, a dress shirt, sleeves buttoned down. He had his bible in hand. His voice was soft but firm, and he was filled with opinions.
I was struck by his conviction that he was still married and would always remain attached to his wife even though they are no longer together. At times he was impatient with his memory of her, and yet he seemed to hold to this conviction about her place in his life. When he told his story, it moved with the fluid cadence of a fully realized narrative that reveals the arrival at understanding. His daily work is as a pastor. His congregation is made up of the sick and broken people who are struggling to make a life for themselves while they carry the secret of their illnesses and their HIV status. Sainton is a confidante, a constant presence for them.
I found out I must have become HIV positive after my wedding October 11, 2001. It began when my wife fell sick and was hospitalized in the General Hospital where she had to stay in 2003. They did all the lab tests and they could not reveal what was wrong with her. Finally they made an HIV Test and the test was positive to HIV. And then I said to her, I know myself, so tell me how that happened to you. And then the doctor took my blood and gave me the blood to go to GHESKIO to have it analyzed and I found out I was positive. I had the result in 2003. GHESKIO gave me a sealed envelope to give to the doctor. When I went out of GHESKIO center with the envelop, I said, no, I can't carry an envelop without knowing what was inside, and I tore the envelop and I read the results of the test and I saw it said positive. And I said, "wow!" and I felt I received a slap on my face. AIDS, I said. I felt I was falling down, and I felt that this was the biggest deception I had in my life. And at this time I remembered my training for theology school and I declared my faith. Even if everyone will die of HIV AIDS, I will never die of it. And I went to the doctor with the results. When I arrived there I said to the doctor, yes, I agree the test is positive, but you are not going to put the results in my wife's file until I talk to my wife about it first. And the doctor agreed with me because he knew how things went. So I told him I knew a lot of people and I knew that a lot of people would go inside my wife's file to see what was going on. So I told him not to put it in her file and I would talk to her first. From my discussions with the doctor I discovered that my wife had been tested in 1999, and that since January she'd been HIV positive. At that time they thought it was an error, a mistake from the lab, and her family told her not to tell anyone because it was a mistake.
My wife did not share that information with me. And I said to her, "If you thought it was a mistake from the lab why did you not share that with me? Remember when we were getting married I asked you do you have something to tell me something to share with me because we are going to make an arrangement for our entire life." Then I said, "I don't care, life goes on. What are we going to do now? I am going to talk to God about you. And I am going to organize medical follow up for you and I will do a medical follow up for me."
The Impact of the News of Being HIV Positive
I felt at that time that life would stop for me because I did not have any information about HIV and I did not know what medicine to take for it. Right after I talked to her, I had the test myself and confirmed I was positive at the General Hospital on May 28 2003, and at this time I asked the doctor for a referral for her to do a follow up at GHESKIO. And I asked one of her friends to go with her to GHESKIO. And then I went up to La Montagne, a place to pray, and I decided to stay there and pray to God. And I asked God the questions, "God, you know the way I am in front of you, you gave me the ability to talk to others people, how can you let me get caught in that trap? Tell me what I have done that made this happen, and right now I am ready to ask you for your forgiveness." And God answered me, "Did Job sin?" At this time he wanted to show me that he needed Job to accomplish the mission. So I came to I understand that I had a mission.This is not because I had sinned against the will of God, but when all of my friends, doctors and nurses who know me where I used to preach, got to hear, that was a big scandal, because they could not understand how something like this could happen to me because they believed a lot in me. They thought that someone who had HIV was someone who had a bad life. And when they knew that I had been infected by my wife, I had to calm down a lot of them, because they were very protective towards me. That news spread through out all the churches both in Port-au-Prince and outside of Port-au-Prince. Everyone was wondering "What happened to him?" Sometimes I used to meet some of them and they did not want to meet me because they did not want to shake my hand. So I had to stay alone, and when I was at the hospital with my wife, one of the people in charge of internal medicine and said, "Joel, come and tell me what you did; where did you go, what bad thing did you do to come to infect that poor lady?" And I said, "Doctor, someone who did not eat beans cannot shit beans. And now, since she is here, you can talk to her and she will tell you exactly what happened. I know myself very well," I said, and she turned away and was ashamed. That was the lady doctor. And after, at one of the churches where I was a minister, with one of the pastors who was the pastor for my wedding, when he heard about it, he had an extraordinary meeting with the full committee, and he asked me to come to his church to pray with him and the congregation. After he knew that I was HIV positive he said I should leave there and go away and not stay in his community because he did not want me to die in his community. I did not know where I was going because at this time that was the end of the rental of my house. I was on the street.
That is the church where I was one of the pastors, where I'd been preaching to them, where I would go everyday. And when they asked me to leave I did so calmly with my wife. God made a path for me and he allowed me to find money and at this time he allowed me to find two rooms where we are now. They belong to my sister. And I can say that on July first I will have spent seven years right here. When I came here, I started to work with another group, and it is like a inter-group of all the churches. And in that group it was only for leaders in the church. And while I was in that group, they said to me, we have learned that you are living with HIV/AIDS. They said you should stay involved in life and talk to other people and let them know what happened. And I explained everything to them. After that they said my wife was a criminal and that I was not to stay with her. They said, you are supposed to give her back to her parents right away. I said no. I said we got married for life until death will us part. They said they received the order from God to ask me to put my wife out of the house. And I said nothing. They told me I had a certain number of days to put her out of the house. I did not tell them anything, neither yes nor no.
"Put Away Your Wife…"
They asked me to put away my wife because they knew that I was infected by her. They said that since she knew she was infected and yet she did not tell me anything, they considered that as criminal. My wife is someone that I met May 18 2000, and we got married October 11th 2001, and when she had the test in January 1999, I did not know her at that time. They said according to what she has done to you, you are not to stay with her. After a few days, when I met them, they asked me if I had sent her back to her family and I said no, she is still in my house. Then they said, you have just a few days to send her back. I did not say a word. Then one night when I went to pray with them, it was raining and it was dark and very late. I went inside to pray, and the president of the group came up to me, and called me to him, and I lifted my head and I said, "Me?" and he said, "You go out, you are going to die because you did not respect the rules of God." So they put me out. I went out into the rain and I raised my hand and was talking to God and I said "Lord, look at my situation, at what has happened to me. I know that you will make them understand. I am your servant, they are supposed to talk to me, but I will not go back to them unless they come to meet me. And I went back home and I lay down. Then other pastors who once used to call me to their churches never called me again. They did not want to embrace me any more.
A New Mission; APIA
So I stayed home and prayed to God, then I went out to learn more about HIV/AIDS, more about what it is. I went to POZ SIDA and I went to another association they call GIPA and now I was learning about HIV/AIDS. And after that, in February of 2004, February 14th, they were having a party for all people living with HIV, and during the party they were playing music, and everyone was dancing. Every man needed a female partner to dance with, but deep inside myself I did not feel comfortable with that. I said, "Wow, what am I doing here?" The way I felt so bad, I knew that was the same way that other Christians who had been infected would feel, that they would never come to a place like that, because they would never feel comfortable. Then, I said, well, I know now what is my mission and what mission God has given me. I said, now I am going to give all my support to all Christians infected by HIV/AIDS. And I started right away, without anyone; I started with a few friends and a few pastors and I revealed to them my vision and through UCC I explained what my vision involved. And then I took the decision to make that dream come true. And that is when they decided to give me all the support, when I formed a new NGO: APIA (Association of People Infected and Affected by HIV/AIDS).
There are four hundred and twenty-seven people involved with APIA, four hundred and twenty-seven infected and affected by HIV/AIDS that we serve. They are not all Christians but at the beginning we had the idea that all of them would be Christians. But others who were not Christians came to us and we did not want to exclude them. We just remind them what the goal of the organization is and why we founded it, and tell them since they have come here, they are among Christians. And some have said, even though I am not a Christian today, I want to be one, I will be one and I want to be among Christians.
About His Wife
Now, as for my wife, what happened is that her family decided that the way things were going, they started to think that I could be a danger to her, so they asked her to come to their home. They said that what happened to me was because of her and they persuaded her that I would not stay quietly like this and I would take revenge on her. I said to her she did not have to be afraid. I had decided to marry her and I was still her husband and would be her husband for life, so she shouldn't be afraid of anything or anyone. At first she did not do anything but her parents kept on still talking to her negatively until she left my house. I went to look for her to bring her home but she said she would not come back to that house and she said it would be better if we went somewhere else, so we went somewhere else, to another house where we started to live again and she acted to me the way she did before—in a way that made me uncomfortable at home and made me stay away as she had done before. First she started telling me bad things that I did not know anything about. And then her family persuaded her that people working in NGO field in HIV were making a lot of money. Then she asked me to do several things, to purchase things for her, and I did not do it. I told her that I saw that she did not take seriously her responsibility as an adult, so I said to her, I am leaving, and this is what you want. I will go my way and you will go your way. You need to understand that adults do not play. Sometimes a man has to take a final decision, and today is my final decision. I will not come back, don't call me, I will not come back. I felt that I suffered too much, I had too much stress from my family life. Later, when she had seen the reality of everything, she called and asked me to come back. I said, "Remember what I told you. An adult is an adult. You can stay in your way and I will stay in my way, I have no problem with you, you thought that your family was doing something good for you, and today you can go your way with your family. Myself, I choose Jesus' way, I choose Jesus as my wife."
I don't believe in two marriages. When you are married you are married for life, until death. In front of God I am still married, but for the society I am not married anymore, but I respect my engagement in front of God. I respect the word that says that a man will leave his mother and father and join his wife and both will become one. What God puts together no one can put asunder. You can break a ruling from a church, but you cannot break an engagement blessed by God. You could run away and make a second marriage, but I think that is a solution which would make things worse than they were before. What I am telling you now: you can make a survey around the world, divorce, even though you do not belong to any church or you have no religion, divorce and remarriage is never a good thing for a family. Most of the time, the children that you had for your first wedding they become abandoned and then they become juvenile delinquents. They did not have the same affection, the same education, because it is not the same blood. Because when a mother raises her kids, she knows exactly what her son needs, or when a father and a mother are raising their own child it is not the same as when someone else is doing the job. The mother and father know exactly what the needs of the child are, and they are tolerant and give support to the son. That is not the same when a stepfather is raising a child.
The Work Ahead
Now I think that in the first place it is my theological training that has helped me so much. Since I have known that I was infected I have become a leader in HIV/AIDS. God gave me a blessing because he gave me a mission among those who are infected. I remember after we had created APIA, I went to evangelical churches, and I did a lot of lectures and I explained to them how I had been infected and many people cried and said, someone like you did not deserve it. Then before I leave I usually leave my phone number and address in the church and sometimes it happens that someone calls me back for something very personal—one to one—and some of them have said, I am also someone living with HIV and I want to be helped by the example you have given. If you had not given that example as a pastor, I would have preferred to die because I did not want anyone to know about me and because they will say that I have been infected because I have done wrong things.
Photos for this post shot by Andre Lambertson.