Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Challenge for Churches to take ownership of HIV and AIDS response

Published in Off the Wall - Fiji Times 23/2/11

On Monday I attended the first day of a Training of Trainers programme on HIV and AIDS for lecturers, tutors at theological schools and training institutions for deaconesses and pastor as well as chaplains of institutions. Representatives from a number of Christian denominations were taken through an introduction on HIV and AIDS, the work and role of the Churches in responding to the epidemic.

The training programme is being organized by the South Pacific Association of Theological Schools (SPATS) and UNAIDS as a means to ensure those training ministers, deaconesses, pastors and working in the spiritual education of lay members, especially young people have the capacity to discuss and engage with HIV and AIDS from a Christian perspective.

For some, despite HIV and AIDS being present in Fiji for nearly two decades, it was their first time to learn about the virus and be introduced to those whose worlds have been turned upside down because of it.

The keynote address was given by Rev. Dr. Cliff Bird, a lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College, who teaches a course on HIV and AIDS. The course designed by SPATS is titled “Hope, Healing and Wholeness in the Context of HIV and AIDS”. Unfortunately this course has only been taught in a very small number of theological schools resulting in only few ministers being educated on HIV and AIDS as part of their ministerial formation.

In his speech Rev. Bird began by highlighting a common negative reaction to HIV and AIDS, which participants may have heard directly or indirectly.

“There are many people who say and believe that HIV and AIDS is a curse and a divine punishment upon persons who live loose and immoral lives – persons, they say, who have been living in sexual sin. And by sexual sin they might mean sexual promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity in marriage, gay relationships and so on.”

Rev. Dr. Bird said that in Oceania, this type of reaction to HIV and AIDS, “stems from two roots: the first root is cultural – traditional belief in our cultures link the causes of illness to some spirit power or divine being either directly or indirectly through human agents; the second root is “Christian-biblical” – a common belief in the various forms of Christianity in our region and beyond link illness (e.g. HIV and AIDS) to sin in a person’s life.”

Rev. Dr. Bird express his disagreement with this particular view. “In saying this I am not condoning specific cultural beliefs that work against and negate life, and I am not condoning sin however we try to understand it in our modern era. I am nevertheless saying that these negative reactions to HIV and AIDS are misplaced and too simplistic as explanations for a pandemic that is both broad and complex. I subscribe to the position that we need to address the fact of HIV and AIDS in a more holistic manner.”

Commenting on the risks which are part of the freedom that human beings have to choose between alternatives, Rev. Dr. Bird said that moral evils which occur as a result of wrong choices made by human beings, “in relation to HIV and AIDS we make decisions that make us and others around us open to suffering.”

He was quick to add though, that not every choice is made freely or under normal circumstances.

“Take for instance many young girls in the poorest of Third World countries who were and are forced into prostitution and sexual encounters and practices to earn money in order to simply eat and drink. They have very limited or no choices at all and are, therefore, forced by economic conditions into extremely vulnerable situations and to the risks of infection. From this perspective HIV and AIDS is also very much an economic and distribution problem. Moreover, there is enough evidence that many girls and women got infected with the virus through rape during situations of war and ethnic violence and hostilities. From this perspective HIV and AIDS is also a political and militaristic issue.”

That afternoon this message was driven home to the participants as we watched a documentary film called “Angels in the Dust.” The film is story of hope and healing in the face of a staggering crisis. AIDS is leaving entire South African villages decimated and thousands of children orphaned, with no adults to raise them. The inspiring story of Marion Cloete, a university-trained therapist who— with her husband and three daughters— fearlessly walked away from a privileged life in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb to build Botshabelo, an extraordinary village and school that provides shelter, food, and education to more than 550 South African children.

This movie left many people feeling emotional as we saw and heard from children who contracted HIV due to rape or being forced into prostitution by their own parents and as we saw thousands of graves in a cemetery where every week at least 100 people were being buried from AIDS related deaths.

In our final session for the day we had the opportunity to hear from and dialogue with two HIV positive people. As we heard their stories and they shared the situations of others, it became painfully obvious that while many Christians do respond with compassion and love to those living with HIV and AIDS compared to the rest of those who make up the response of the Church as a whole, it is only a drop in the ocean.

In 1994 the late Archbishop Jabez Bryce – Anglican Archbishop of Polynesian said: “Those who discriminate against persons with AIDS do not follow the gospel of Christ.”

That statement was true then and is still true today.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love and hope and may you share this blessing with all you meet.

Rev. James Bhagwan is the Circuit Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva.

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