Kimberly Harris - South Africa
This past weekend I attended an HIV/AIDS seminar put on by the Institute of Contextual Theology (ICT) with Rev. Bertram Swartz. The basis of this seminar was to bring together people from various denominations who are working in the field of HIV/AIDS and discuss the churches response to this pandemic.
So many denominations were represented including Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and of course Congregational. The first speaker of the day spoke on "The Caring Ministry of the Church." This guy was amazing! He basically talked about how this disease has become a social class issue and society, the church included, has moved into this theology of "us" and "them" when the church needs to be promoting a theology of "we." Meaning that society separates itself into the one's that are not infected with the disease and those that are infected and they look at everyone with judgment. The speaker said that there are Governmental and NGO's out there to take care of the medication programs and the food parcel programs, but what organizations are stepping up and taking on the stigma that gets thrown around with this disease. It is the church's role to take on the de-stigmatization and to stop looking at being infected as an embarrassment. 90% of the people who find out they are positive do not disclose their status due to the stigma that comes with a positive status, and the automatic assumption that they are bad, immoral people who sleep around and that is how they contracted the disease. When in reality, that is only a percentage of the cases, and a church is a big part of helping this stigma carry on. The church needs to step up and be a safe place for these individuals to turn to without the fear of being judged and the church and it's leaders need to start leading by example for their congregations. The speaker stated that statistics show that 70-80% of people newly diagnosed as HIV positive are woman who have been faithful to their partners/spouses. The second speaker was on "Sexuality: The Ethics of Power". This speaker spoke on the gender issues and gender power struggle. From the beginning of one's life boys are placed higher than girls in society and the girl's who try to break out of this rule of thumb are looked down upon within their family and community. The speaker went on to explain even the bible can help to back up this skewed idea of power. He used the two creation stories in Genesis to explain. In Genesis chapter one God created humankind to rule over everything upon the earth, he created stewardship, there is no mention of man being created before woman, they are created at the same time and as equal dominions over the earth. In Genesis chapter two, which was written by a different person, years after chapter one, is the story that we are all familiar with where God created man first and then took a rib from his body and created woman. This version of the creation story puts woman in a subservient position and puts her in a position that she was created for the man. This version helps others to verify the oppression of woman. The third speaker of the day was on "The Spiritual Struggle of Infected and Affected Persons". This speaker stressed that infected persons are stigmatized because of ignorance and people need to be educated. When I was doing my first aid training at the counselor training I was appalled that for AIDS being so prevalent here, that not one of the 25 youth sitting in my audience knew what universal precautions were and there were two medical students in attendance! The speaker stressed that the population needs to stop with the mentality that if we don't talk about it, it's not there. The fact that it is here and out of the 37 million people living with AIDS worldwide 25 million of them are in sub-Sahara Africa, people NEED to be educated!! With education and understanding comes the de-stigmatization, and it is the churches job to do this. The speaker also spoke on how all the government and NGO programs focus on medicine and physical nutrition, making sure these people are receiving the proper nutrition, but who is taking care or looking out for their spiritual nutrition. Again, the church should be stepping up! Also the church cannot just tell them what they need to do, but how to do it! There also needs to be a holistic approach to the education. The speaker stated that the statistics show that by the year 2015 2/3 of Sub-Saharan African young people will have died due to this disease. The speaker proposed that it should be the churches job to teach their youth and young people about sexuality and not only abstinence, but equip them with the knowledge of the disease and how to prevent it. He stated that our young people need to be given all the knowledge towards prevention and since no one else is stepping up to do this the church needs to. The last speaker again was very powerful and motivating. His topic was "Toward a Theology of HIV/AIDS", but he started out by speaking about theology and it's definition in general. He started by defining theology as God talk and Faith seeking answers. Before one can begin to understand theology and God, one must first look at themselves and ask where God is in their life and plan. One also needs to ask questions and wrestle with the answers or lack of answers before one can be a theologian. He stated that there is no universal theology and theology is completely contextual. Whose teachings are really the right teachings? Anyone who wants to prove their beliefs can find it in the bible because the bible is contextual. The bible won't let anyone produce anything that isn't there, it will allow anyone to find what they are looking for because everyone looks at it in their context. In getting towards the theology of AIDS he referred to one of my favorite passages in I Corinthians, where it talks about the whole body must work as a whole and one part can not throw out another part just because they are not wanted or needed. Such as the church needs to think of the people suffering because of AIDS as part of the church body, and we cannot just throw them out. He also stated that we need to start looking at AIDS as just another disease, how come there is no stigma for someone who suffers from a heart attack or has diabetes. He stated that we will all die someday, it is not God's will that people should live forever, and we must go back to our creator and make room for others. All in all this day was a great experience for me, it helped feed my spirit and also helped me have more passion for my work here.
Kim Harris is a Global Mission Intern with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, based in Johannesburg. She serves as an assistant to Adora Lee in HIV/AIDS Education.