Community Development Health Religion

The interplay between the church, HIV and AIDS response

Participants at the channel of hope Zimbabwe training

By Rebecca Munetsi

‘Our church is very big. We have around one thousand and five hundred people coming every Sunday to pray and worship, getting healing and miracles, says a Pastor from a local church. I was born in the church, married in the church and now I am a granny. The church is important for me because when I die people will bury me. I love my church because they sing very well and I want to go to heaven. I go to church because I want to find a good husband or wife,” These are some of the reasons expressed by people interviewed on why they attend church.

Does it mean in these churches, we only have holy people? People who are going to Heaven. Christ-like people. Good people. Loving people. Clean people. HIV-negative people.

On the other side, we have sinners. People who do not go to church. People who are going to hell. Evil people. Bad people. Unclean people. HIV-positive people. Promiscuous people.

Is this the correct picture? The ‘Us and them’.

Does it mean in the church, we do not have sinners, people who go to church but are not Christians? People who are going to hell. Evil people. Bad people. Unclean people. Promiscuous people. HIV-positive people?

What prejudices do we hold towards others? Perhaps as people, we should not talk about ‘them’ or those people’ when talking about people living with HIV.

“We pray that the Body of Christ is also a healthy body and that families will grow in their understanding that God calls us not only to take responsibility for our spiritual health but also for our physical health,” writes Christo Greyling, Director, Faith Partnership for Development, World Vision International.

The profile of people living with HIV (PLHIV) in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa, is changing, presenting new challenges in terms of meeting their socioeconomic and healthcare needs. Globally, there is a multisectoral response to HIV. In the collaborative response, the important role of churches is now well recognized and acknowledged. Reports say the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2004 that one in five organizations involved in HIV programming is faith-based.

Social commentators however criticize some of the churches for becoming places of exclusion rather than places of refuge and solace for people living with HIV.

“I have been suffering in silence and cannot disclose my HIV status at church because people will use it to preach from the pulpit. People think I got HIV through promiscuity but that’s not the case. I was also married in morally acceptable ways. I just found out I was HIV positive when my husband died. I never slept around but people at church do not understand that. They even gossip about me saying ‘arikumedza beans (swallowing beans) slang for taking antiretrovirals (ARVs). It is so disheartening.

“The painful part about church people is that even if you don’t disclose your status, they suspect and gossip about you. So when I am very sick sometimes I just skip going to church and most of them don’t visit me maybe because they are scared or they shun me I don’t know,” said Sizani (name changed).

The newly appointed President of the Council of Churches in Zimbabwe, Bishop Ignatius Makumbe says churches should not let other Christians down.

“Jesus Christ never left the sick. He did not stigmatize them. In fact, he healed them. As the church, we must care, love, and support the HIV and downtrodden in our churches. The whole world is yearning for hope. It’s not only the area of HIV that needs our care. Children are dying, and drug abuse is rife. As churches, let us give hope. When people are hopeless, they die before their time. Hope is the last thing to die.

“Churches have a crucial role in most societies throughout the world. They hold credibility with the people at the grassroots and for being part of people’s lives such as at birth, sickness, marriage, and death, they have a lead role over other sectors in the field of HIV,” Bishop Makumbe said.

Writing in the Channels of Hope Manual, on behalf of CABSA and AIDSLink international, Directors Naeleh Fourie LeRoux and Rosemary Hack respectively, say faith-based organizations have a unique and important role to play in responding to the challenges of HIV. In spite of the huge and often heartbreaking challenges, they can help individuals and communities to live life abundantly.

AIDSLink Director Joshua Chishala from Zambia says, “The role which the faith organizations can play is to make their place a safe environment for people living with HIV. People must feel safe to share their status without being judged.

“Coming back to the training, I was humbled to see the passion of the participants and how they are so willing to reach out to the communities. That excitement during the training was vivid to many which shows the readiness of the participants to serve.”

Operation Mobilization (OM) – a Christian missionary organization that seeks to mobilize young people to live and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ currently has 6,800 people working in 118 countries.

People Care Officer in OM Zimbabwe and Administrator for International Leadership Development OM International, Takundwa Georgina, says, “In the context of responding to HIV, the Christian faith should not negate the fact that the pandemic is among us in the communities where faith organizations operate. In a way, we are also given a platform to address the issues closer to home. The church should break it down into chunks that the communities understand in their own contexts. The church should also be working in partnership with other organizations so that they do not sound so religious when it comes to HIV and other issues but in a way that addresses people’s everyday lives.

“For OM Zimbabwe, the training in Gweru is the initial response to HIV and a pilot program. This is an initial start focusing mainly on equipping the church in partnership with the Anglican Church in the Midlands province in Zimbabwe.”

Consumer Council of Zimbabwe Regional Director for Midlands, Chiedza Chikumbirike, says the churches should help in terms of food for PLWH.

“Access and cost of a balanced diet and nutritious food is a challenge because food is expensive. When people living with HIV get the nutrients they need, they get sick less often and have an improved quality of life. With good nutrition and medical care, people living with HIV can live better. So it is also important for the Body of Christ to help with spiritual needs and physical needs as well.”

Ester from Tanzania said churches have been accused of being a sleeping giant; of promoting stigmatizing and discriminating attitudes based on fear, ignorance, and prejudice, thus pronouncing harsh moral judgments on those infected.

“They have been accused of obstructing the efforts of the secular world in the area of prevention and of reducing issues of HIV to simplistic moral pronouncements,”, says Dr. Sue Parry writing about the World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS initiative in Africa (EHAIA).

Participants at the recent Channel of Hope meeting underscored the need for the sleeping giant to wake up and break the silence.

For example, the church should be talking and demonstrating to the congregants,  good condom use because married couples are also at risk of contracting HIV.

If young people are not practicing abstinence what should the church do? Should they introduce condom use, talk about safe sex practices or educate youths about sex?

Harm reduction is also a crucial element for injecting drug users (