Churches Strive to Heal HIV/AIDS Victims

Religious leaders at a summit ahead of the 17th International AIDS Conference urged congregations worldwide to tackle HIV/AIDS not only with physical care, but also mentally by removing the stigma that the Church had helped create.

HIV-positive religious leaders at the inaugural summit of Religious Leaders Living with HIV on Sunday asserted that church leaders are the hope for changing how communities view people with HIV, according to Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.

"I believe that God can use HIV to heal the church," said the Rev. J.P. Heath, acting executive director of International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (INERELA+), which sponsored the summit on Sunday.

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"I also believe that we are the church, the body of the Christ, and together, stigma and discrimination can be something of the past," he said.

Heath has been living with HIV since 2000 and urges faith communities to overcome the stigma by delivering messages that HIV is preventable and manageable. Prevention strategies include abstinence, safer sexual practices, voluntary testing and empowerment, he said.

Furthermore, Pastor Maxwell Kapachawo, coordinator of ANERELA+ (the African predecessor of INERELA+) in Zimbabwe, called on HIV-positive religious leaders to defeat "self-stigma" so they can help others who are infected with the virus. He argues that HIV is a virus, and not a moral issue.

The inaugural summit took place on the same day as the opening of the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. More than 22,000 scientists, policymakers, activists, and workers attended the conference, which ends Aug. 8, making it the second largest conference in the history of the disease, according to Agence France-Presse.

Prior to the International AIDS Conference, Christian leaders had gathered for the Ecumenical Alliance Pre-Conference, July 31 – Aug. 2, in Mexico City.

During one of the presentations, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had washed the feet of two HIV-positive women to demonstrate how church leaders should treat HIV victims with "humility and repentance."

"I am absolutely convinced that we as religious leaders, and we in the religious community that so shunned and shamed people with HIV and struggling with AIDS, must begin first by engaging in public acts of repentance," Hanson said, according to EAA. "Because absent public acts of repentance, I fear our words will not be trusted."

Dilmitis, one of the women whose feet were washed by Hanson, said she has been living with HIV for 14 years. She said her church in Stommen, Norway, accepts people with HIV and drug users, and offers them spiritual and emotional support.

"The energy of acceptance and love I felt there was godly and this is how relationships should be between people living with HIV and religious leaders," she said.

She suggested four strategies for building relationships between religious leaders and people living with HIV: speaking openly about HIV; accepting, understanding and empathizing with people living with HIV; acknowledging that people of faith are sometimes stigmatized; and learning more about HIV.

Kay Warren, international AIDS advocate and co-founder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., also spoke at the Ecumenical Alliance Pre-Conference. Her focus was on the issue of gender-based violence and church-based strategy.

Like gender-based violence, she said, the church is also everywhere.

"The Church is the hope of the world, and God's plan for dealing with the problems of the world," Warren said. "Whether dealing with violence, poverty, orphans or AIDS - if we don't start with the Church, we are starting at the wrong end of the equation."

As a solution, she proposed using the worldwide network of the Church to stop gender-based violence and trafficking. She pointed to the P.E.A.C.E. Plan – developed by Warren and her husband, Rick – as a model of how the Church can tackle the world's biggest problems.

The P.E.A.C.E. Plan is a 50-year strategy to mobilize millions of local churches around the world to tackle the five global problems: spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease and illiteracy.

It has been tested for the past four years in 68 countries and was launched in April.

The Warrens further offered a strategy defined by S.T.O.P. to end AIDS. S.T.O.P. stands for: Save sex for marriage; Train men to respect women and girls; Ppen the door for churches to support care and treatment; and Partner with one person for life through marriage.

An estimated 33 million people are infected with the HIV virus, half of them women. Additionally, another 2 million people die from the disease each year. More than 25 million people have died from AIDS since the disease surfaced in 1981.

"We dare not let down our guard. This is an unforgiving epidemic," warned Margaret Chan, director general of the U.N.'s World Health Organization, on Monday, according to AFP. "We are going to be in this for the long haul."

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