EDITOR’S NOTE: In recognition of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, this is the second of a two-part series on Southern Tier Catholics who have devoted themselves to AIDS ministry and awareness.
APALACHIN — In Father Boniface Ewah’s opinion, everybody should take the AIDS epidemic to heart — whether they’re directly impacted or not.
The African priest’s goal, he said, is for “the entire world to come out forcefully and approach this issue from a pastoral point of view. We hear about it all the time, but people don’t commit it into prayers.”
Father Ewah, 37, has served since 2005 as parochial vicar of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County. He comes to the Diocese of Rochester from Nigeria, where he has begun a ministry and written a book related to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
In 2004 Father Ewah became founder and coordinator of Philo-Gra Dei (Love by God’s Grace), a ministry for victims of HIV/AIDS in the Diocese of Ogoja. One of his top priorities has been to recruit doctors and nurses to visit poor people in their homes free of charge — “to conduct tests, offer encouragement,” he said.
The priest added that people with HIV/AIDS need encouraging words from as many sources as possible, based on their spiritual as well as physical suffering. He explained that in addition to the stigma HIV/AIDS patients face from society, many Nigerians believe demons have cast a spell upon such people. Father Ewah also noted the shock that people experience upon learning they have a disease with no known cure that might very possibly kill them.
“It hits like a bomb, and people contemplate suicide,” he said.
Through his ministry Father Ewah has sought to spread information about HIV/AIDS medication and ensure the drugs get to the people who need them the most.
“Dispensing medication, we should do it as if Jesus was the one doing it,” he said.
Through such efforts, he said, people living with HIV/AIDS can increase their life expectancy as well as quality of life.
In addition, he has implored people to avoid promiscuity in order to lessen the risk of getting HIV or passing it on.
“They can make their life meaningful in other ways than ways that don’t give glory to God,” he said.
The ministry also prioritizes education for the purpose of making good life choices.
Father Ewah added that he has lectured frequently about HIV/AIDS from pulpits and in market squares, and has received very favorable responses. He also has implored Nigerian political leaders to extend compassion toward the AIDS cause.
“The political situation is not stable. The rich are so conscious of power, and they fail to do what they’re supposed to do for the suffering masses,” he remarked.
The challenges in his homeland are daunting. According to Pierre M’Pele, Nigeria’s director for the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), more than 4 million Nigerians are living with HIV/AIDS, the third-highest number in the world behind India and South Africa. M’Pele noted that in 2005 alone, more than 300,000 Nigerians died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, and that there are more than 1 million Nigerian orphans whose parents died due to HIV/AIDS. These grave statistics are exacerbated by the intense famine and poverty that affects Nigeria as well as many other parts of Africa.
Father Ewah has written the book Our Pastoral Responsibilities to AIDS Victims as well as two other books, The Youth and the Future and Church and Society at the Service of Humanity. His writing abilities are part of a diverse personal background — growing up, his most noticeable talents were on the soccer field, and he rose up to become a nationally recognized player.
But by the late 1980s, Father Ewah had begun serious contemplation about life as a Catholic priest. He attributed this focus to the influence of Irish missionary priests he knew as a youngster, along with his desire to have a forum for addressing political and social inequalities in Nigeria. After nine years in major seminary, Father Ewah was ordained in 1998.
The priest is enjoying his assignment at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick.
“So far, so good. It’s a new apostolate, new environment, new world altogether,” he said.
Father Ewah tapped into his childhood passion by helping coach a local youth soccer team over the summer.
“I built the team up and put myself into shape as well,” he remarked with a laugh, adding that he hopes his presence in such venues will help draw more young men to the priesthood “because that’s how I started myself.”
Though he’s not sure how long his stay in the Diocese of Rochester will be — extern priests generally take assignments of at least three years — Father Ewah is sure to be talking up the HIV/AIDS crisis wherever he goes.
“It’s all over the world, entrenched into the entire society,” he said of HIV/AIDS. “We have to enlighten people more, and how are we going to do that? Use the media as often as possible, use the pulpit as often as possible.”