World AIDS Conference draws commitment from international religious leaders
by Albin Hillert | World Council of Churches
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – “Prophet, people and a plan.”
That’s what faith-based organizations (FBOs) need to ensure nobody living with HIV is left behind, said Jesse Milan, past board chair of the Black AIDS Institute. He was speaking as part of a panel group at the Faith on the Fast Track AIDS2016 Pre-Conference meeting July 16-17 prior to the world AIDS Conference.
“We as people of faith have to change our approach and strategy. I recommend a three-pronged triple “P” approach, which stands for prophet, people and a plan. The prophet Micah tells us what God requires of us: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. We as the people of faith get it wrong because we love justice but we do mercy; we should focus on justice and how we bring justice to the world,” said Milan.
He went on to expound on how religious organizations can find their relevance only by expressing it within local communities.
The moderator of the session, Julian Hows, who has lived with HIV for more than 25 years and works with the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), noted: “To end AIDS deaths by 2030, we need to address the stigma that keeps people from testing, keeps them from taking their medication and keeps them from disclosing their statuses.”
Although FBOs have helped reach 50 percent of the people living with HIV who have tested and are on antiretrovirals, further outreach is dogged by numerous gaps.
“The 50 percent we have not reached represents people with whom we are not comfortable. We have not been affirming of human sexuality as we should be and this represents a major gap,” Hows said.
This further amplified the UNAIDS mantra to leave no one behind.
Youth, especially young women and girls, are also viewed as a key population that needs special focus going forward. The role of the family in helping to bridge some of the gaps, especially stigma, was emphasized.
“Around the term treatment, the gap between the pulpit and the parent was the stigma that I feared the most; this was the potential gap between my father, my mother and I. The message from the pulpit to the parents should be how to love their children when they come out as homosexual or disclose their HIV status,” Milan said.
“The home should be the safest place and if the message from the pulpit alienates parents from their children then that stigma never goes always. It stays in one’s heart.”
FBOs were encouraged to develop safe spaces in faith communities that encourage better communication between parents and children as well as between couples. Intergenerational conversations between congregations and their communities and intersectional conversations between clergy and lay people to propagate effective work within and outside congregations were also promoted.
Linked to this was the promotion of youth sensitive clinics and comprehensive sexuality education and information for youth, especially girls who have been identified as being more vulnerable to infection.
The Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, executive director of INERELA+, challenged those gathered to do more about gender-based violence. “We are not addressing the critical drivers of the virus; issues like vulnerability to gender-based violence and our teachings do not promote love and compassion,” she said. INERELA+ is an international, interfaith network of religious leaders who are living with or personally affected by HIV.
“One of the things we have done well as FBOs is outreach, however, we have not done nearly enough ‘in-reach.’ Has the work we are doing transformed our theologies?” she asked?
The Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, coordinator the World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, urged the participants gathered to move beyond just dealing with gender-based violence as a driver of the HIV pandemic to supporting the victims of this abuse.
“We need intergenerational communication on sex and sexuality between parents and children and grandparents. We address sexual and gender violence and yet we lack the skills to support the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence especially the girls who are raped and end up with HIV. This is a major gap and speaks long-term commitment and accompaniment. Sexual violence is a deep- seated wound that lasts for a long time.”
The courage to act on the convictions FBOs so easily speak about but struggle to act on was also identified as one of the missing pieces in the puzzle of attaining an AIDS-free generation. Leaders agreed that for faith communities to win the war against HIV, they must be courageous and work outside the box. This is one of the ways through which the disconnect between the theoretical and the practical can be breached in the fight to end AIDS.
The faith community acknowledged the existence of “faith fatigue” within their ranks, which has led to some backtracking. Partnerships were hailed as a means to reinvigorate, and draw strength from each other.
In concluding the session, Hows charted a way forward: “The role of the church and FBOs moving forward is to find innovative ways on how to work with religious leaders in order to make places of worship more welcoming spaces; all our work has to be guided by people’s experiences. We need to tell their stories and make the process bottom-up rather than prescriptive.”
“As FBOs, you need to do more of what you are already doing well in relation to the identified gaps. We are fighting AIDS. HIV will be with us for a long time to come; we can all live with HIV, but people die of AIDS.”
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