The idea that HIV is present in the life of every human being, regardless of their susceptibility to the disease, could be seen as shocking. It could even be offensive.
But it is the premise behind a successful HIV training programme, based in one of the societies with the highest HIV rates in the world, South Africa – that has sent out hundreds of educators and reached tens of thousands of people for more than a decade.
Lyn van Rooyen, executive director at the Christian AIDS Bureau for Southern Africa (CASBA), a partner organization of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, says this provocative approach suggests everyone should treat HIV as a community problem.
HIV education programmes are as good as useless – or even detrimental – if they add to the stigma surrounding the disease or approach HIV as someone else’s problem, she says.
“Churches may have a wonderful idea to run an HIV programme in townships and poor areas here in South Africa, for example, but may do so without asking how the disease impacts them.
“If you think only in terms of those people who are homosexual or those who are poor, then you always see HIV as being outside yourself. If you’re in western Europe and view HIV as the problem of those other people in the global south, then your response is always from a place of superiority.”
She offers herself as an example: “I do not fit the typical profile of someone at risk of HIV, but how vulnerable am I really? My husband and I both travel extensively and we have been married a long time. When we ask ourselves how that affects our vulnerability, then HIV is us.”
CABSA’s training programme takes a three-pronged approach to HIV, teaching facilitators about the virus and its transmission in a human body, the biblical response to disease, and practical measures to respond to the challenges of the pandemic. Of the more than 800 people trained in HIV competencies, a survey of just over 100 recently found their reach had extended in 2013 to nearly 55,000 people throughout not only southern Africa but other African countries and as far afield as Russia.
A church response to the pandemic – judge the problem, not the person
CABSA training focuses on people, more so than their actions. Knowing those factors that make people vulnerable and that limit their choices should be the Christian response to HIV, says Van Rooyen.
The biblical principal that everyone is created in the image of God underlies CABSA devotions and training.
Moreover, the programme’s success is measured in more than numbers. CABSA talked about hope long before medicine was available: not only hope in the afterlife but that in the absence of medication, people living with the virus still had meaning in their lives.
“The New Testament talks of Christ being ‘God with us,’ and the way in which we then can be the presence of God for others, the way we can assist in healing a broken world. We hear wonderful stories of hope. I’ve heard more theology in shacks of people living with HIV than in all the books I’ve read,” she says.
In the days before medication, she was in a hut with a man lying on the floor, dying. “I asked him how he was. His response was, ‘God is good.’ I still can’t get my head around that.”
CABSA brings hope to people who have otherwise lost every trace of it. “People say I’ve been diagnosed, I will die. But we say that if you get the disease under control, you will see your grandchildren. We’re bringing hope from a medical perspective but also a biblical perspective and a hope that God sees you and values you in the midst of disease.”
As a consequence of the fact that HIV runs along the fault lines of society, many factors play a role in its transmission, such as gender inequality and social instability resulting from war or migration. People most at risk of these circumstances are correspondingly most at risk of HIV. And dealing with this is a matter of justice, to which the church must respond, Van Rooyen says.
Out-dated thinking hinders HIV campaigns
Yet barriers from the church remain. Arguments about disease being the punishment for sin, with sexual disease the worst of all, prevail. The idea abounds that the man makes decisions for the family, that women must submit to husbands – even abusive husbands, and that it is not the role or place of women to question their husbands’ behaviour. The simplistic “Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms” campaign is inadequate. “An unhealthy mix of culture and theology can bring very damaging results,” she says.
More than ever, CABSA needs funds to keep going. Van Rooyen wants to see a faith presence at June’s South Africa AIDS conference, which is the springboard to the International AIDS Conference in Durban next year.
CABSA also contends with the fact that the “slow-wave” HIV pandemic has receded in the mind of the public, yet still 1000 new infections are reported each day in South Africa alone, exacting a cost for long-term treatment that even many developed countries would struggle to meet.
The pandemic, now in its fourth decade, is as critical as ever but, sadly, more easily dismissed. Training and education remain an inexpensive and effective means of defying the disease’s hold on society.