PATTAYA, Thailand - When HIV sufferers turn to the evangelical church, they are looking to reconcile with God but instead find "closed doors and angry faces," says one Christian HIV sufferer.
Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, a UNAIDS representative from Bolivia, was speaking at a fringe meeting of the World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly in Thailand on Saturday.
She told evangelicals there that demonstrating God's grace and mercy were as much part of an effective evangelical response to HIV and AIDS as practical action.
Citing the biblical story of the prodigal son who receives his father's forgiveness despite squandering his wealth, she told of how she had been received again by God and her physical father, a church elder, after discovering she had HIV.
"God was not waiting for me with a list of questions - 'Oh, why did you do this?' or 'I told you this was going to happen.' He came to me and He held me and He helped me walk all the rest of the way until I got home again. And so did my father," Quiroga said.
"That is grace," she pointed out. "Is the church doing this now? That is my question to you, because I can tell you that the experiences of most people living with HIV with the evangelical church in particular is not so like the prodigal son.
"When they try to go back home and look for God because they realize they will die soon and they go to the church, they don't find open arms and mercy and grace. They find questions …, which I don't think is what God wanted us to do with people with HIV."
Quiroga urged evangelicals to demonstrate greater compassion towards those with HIV.
"If you were in the position of the person with HIV and you were trying to look for God in the church, the place where people say God is, and you find doors that are closed and faces that are angry with you, how would you react?"
She warned that a negative attitude and the church's inability to speak about sex, drugs and other taboo issues made many HIV sufferers reluctant to turn to the church, despite their desire to reconcile with God.
"We can leave [difficult issues] to God because He will judge that anyway but I think it is our calling to practice grace when it comes to working on HIV and Aids," she said.
Also at the meeting was Sally Smith, a civil society partnerships adviser for UNAIDS who served as a BMS medical missionary in Nepal for 16 years.