HIV+ Pastor: Poverty Caught Up with Me

PATTAYA, Thailand – Growing up in a poor, polygamous family in Kenya, Patricia Sawo hated poverty and was desperate to escape it.

As an adult, she managed to break free from poverty only to be flung back into it when she was infected with HIV, which initially made the now evangelical pastor a social outcast.

"One of the things I started to hate at age nine was poverty," shared Sawo, who is the HIV Ambassador for U.K.-based Tearfund as well as pastor of Deliverance Church in Kitali, Kenya, at the World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly on Tuesday.

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"I grew up a bitter child, bitter at poverty, bitter at death – my mother had 12 children but her children kept on dying," she said, noting that she and her brother were the only ones to have survived to adulthood.

Sawo, who grew up in a roofless hut where rain would force the family into a corner, recalled growing up passionately determined to live a different life and have children that would experience a different childhood than her own.

But she became infected with the HIV virus that plunged her into economic, social, and spiritual turmoil. African church leaders in the 1990s, when she discovered her infection, viewed the disease as punishment from God.

She recalled how after revealing her HIV status at a large Christian revival meeting, she was fired from her government job a week later. Then her husband lost his job as an accountant with the government, and after three weeks, the church asked her to step down from her leadership position. By the fourth week her landlord asked her family to leave the house.

After two years, her children were forced out of public school.

"We didn't have a meal to put on the table," recalled Sawo, who is now the regional coordinator for East Africa of ANERELA (the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS).

"And I thought once more," she said struggling to hold back tears, "the poverty I saw as a small girl has caught up with me."

Her family was forced to move to a house that didn't have a roof.

During her early years of her disease, she would talk to many pastors and church leaders, who all said to her that she must be hiding something that has caused God to punish her with HIV.

In 2002, she went to a conference in Uganda where she learned that HIV is preventable, manageable, and AIDS death can be postponed. Sawo took the news to her church and the church accepted the information and began its HIV/AIDS response ministry.

"I want to tell you, this is the most difficult thing for me," she said. "When I realized I was HIV positive, the church had nothing to do with me. It was a painful experience. I was bitter, lonely, and I almost lost my faith if not for God."

After Sawo's sharing, a "Living Room" session was convened where experts with various experiences with poverty and HIV/AIDS shared and sometimes challenged one another on the issue.

Ngwiza Mnkandla, president of the church planting group Dawn Ministries, shared about the extreme poverty in his homeland of Zimbabwe, which has the highest inflation rate in the world.

More than 5 million people currently need food aid and in some areas people have already begun to die from hunger.

Mnkandla said that he has to cross the border to neighboring Botswana to buy food because the shelves of stores in Zimbabwe are empty.

Dr. Raju Abraham of India, who studied in England as a neurologist, emphasized that the Church – if it is true to the Gospel – must not only think about saving souls, but also respond to the physical needs of people.

"Souls are more or less attached to the body," Abraham said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "I believe winning souls is important; I am very committed to that, but the soul is attached to the body."

The conversation then switched back to HIV/AIDS when panelist Sally Smith, who is an adviser with UNAIDS and previously served as a BMS medical missionary in Nepal for 16 years, challenged those who support the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, and use Condom) model of HIV prevention.

She said in Nepal, girls are forced into arranged marriage and they do not know who they will marry until the day before. Smith, who has adopted two Nepalese children, said it is usual for girls to cry on their wedding night.

The UNAIDS advisor challenged the ABC model supported by many evangelicals and Christians because it is based on the Western idea that all women have the power to choose and make their own decision.

"Most women in the Middle East, in Asia and Africa have no choice to who they marry," Smith said. "On their wedding night they cannot choose to be abstinent. They cannot choose the faithfulness of their husband. And when they see that he is being unfaithful, they cannot ask him to use a condom.

"So ABC has failed the women of the world, and we need to think again about comprehensive approach to HIV prevention and empowering women to make choices that will save their life," she said.

Panelist Dr. Peter Okaleet of the ministry Medical Assistance Program, who has both a medical and theological degree, responded to Smith by saying he supports another HIV prevention model – SAVE, which stands for Safer sexual practice, Access to medication, Voluntary counseling and testing, and Empowerment.

"If the A and the B and the C are not working, how do we then move this discussion forward," Okaleet asked.

Church leaders, he believes, need to listen to what UNAIDS and other agencies are saying and be open to dialogue even if they don't agree completely with what the secular community says in hope that God will move forward their effort to prevent HIV.

Sawo concluded the "Living Room" session by sharing one more revelation she received during her time in poverty.

"One thing I realized is that when you are fighting poverty, there is that part in you that says I don't want to beg," she said. "And you kind of think that when you speak out that people will see you as a beggar. And you hate to be a beggar, and you hate to be in poverty."

Sawo called on agencies, governments, and churches to empower people instead of just giving handouts.

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