HIV/AIDS and the Church: What Does the Lord Require of us? A letter to church leaders in Nepal, North East India and Myanmar

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1 HIV/AIDS and the Church: What Does the Lord Require of us? A letter to church leaders in Nepal, North East India and Myanmar July 8, 2005 Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, This letter is written to you by a gathering of 92 Christian leaders from Nepal, North East India and Myanmar, who were together in Kathmandu from July 5-8, 2005 for a Micah Network regional consultation on HIV/AIDS and the Christian Response. We represent 59 Christian agencies and churches working in integral mission, and we respectfully address this letter to the leaders of the churches in our region, of which we are part. We write to you about a terrible pandemic causing immense suffering in our region, our communities, and many of our churches. We believe the Lord would have us respond to this great human need in a way that demonstrates God s love. We long to see our churches fulfill their God-given potential as healing communities, embracing and loving those whom society, and even the church, so often deliberately ignore and marginalize. Brothers and sisters, we long to see all of our churches as communities in which our neighbours afflicted with HIV/AIDS experience unconditional love and support. As members of these churches, we are committed to doing all that we can to facilitate this, and to praying for God s power to do more. Since AIDS first came to be known more than 20 years back, it has created such a widespread presence that there is no country in the world that has completely escaped its impact, or where an AIDS - related death does not occur. It is a universal disease with no respect for caste, ethnicity, tribe, creed, religion or economic background, and is a serious threat to public health and development all over the world. The impact is greatest in low income countries such as ours. UNAIDS estimates that in 2004, 4,945,000 people around the world were infected with HIV. Present statistics show that there are 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Out of these, 38.6 million people are adults, 19.2 million are women and 3.2 million are children below 15 years. During 2004,around 3.1 million AIDS deaths occurred, of which 2.5 million were adults, 1.2 million were women and 0.6 million were children under 15 years. 1 1 Handbook on HIV/AIDS: Andhra Pradesh AIDS Control Society, 2004

2 UNAIDS estimates the numbers of adults living with HIV/AIDS in our region as at the end of 2003 are: 18,500 in North East India, 61,000 in Nepal, and 330,000 in Myanmar. Behind these statistics, there is of course great human suffering, to which our church communities are far from immune. HIV/AIDS strikes at the most vulnerable people in our communities. The infected are not only those who indulge in behaviour that places them at risk. Many faithful wives are infected by their husbands, and children infected by their parents. The social and economic implications of the pandemic are enormous. Not only does it erode the earning and working capacity of the individuals but the effects of this spreads beyond the individual to the whole community. We believe the church has a God-given responsibility, and the opportunity, to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in our countries, and to offer help and hope to those who are already suffering. Biblical Mandate We acknowledge that all human beings are created in the image of God, and all are equal and unique in God s sight. God cares for everybody irrespective of caste, ethnicity, tribe or creed. Any violation of a person s value and dignity is an offence against God the Creator. God intervenes and takes sides with the victims and calls for justice and liberation on their behalf. The Old Testament prophets persistently reminded God s people that authentic worship involves a commitment to justice and mercy. In Jesus Christ, God revealed with astounding clarity what this means for the mission of the Church. At the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus declared that He had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. With great compassion Jesus responded to the victims in the society, such as leprosy-affected people, vulnerable women, and children. He touched, healed and restored them in such a way that they were able to enjoy life in all its fullness. Church leaders have a special responsibility to guide the followers of Jesus Christ as we continue His mission of reaching out to the victims of society, helping and caring for those who are in need, including people living with HIV/AIDS. In so doing, we demonstrate core values of the Kingdom of God. We believe that the Church in Nepal, North East India, and Myanmar, of which we are part, could do much more to address the problem of HIV/AIDS in our society. 2

3 Stigma and Discrimination We were very moved by the testimony of one of the men participating in our gathering when he spoke very powerfully to us of his experience as an HIV positive (+ve) person in the church. I was a drug user for 14 years, from a non-christian background, and in 1997 I learned that I was HIV+ve. In 1995, I accepted Jesus as my Lord. Since then I have been living with more meaning. I now know why I live. It is more meaningful than my drugging days. As an HIV+ve person I have had to live with lots of stigma and shame. In my early days I could not open up to people, except for my pastor. He is my close friend, and he and a few other friends accept me as I am. This acceptance has helped me get through. My pastor did not look down on me, and that acceptance meant that healing could take place. For the last 9 years I have not taken medicine for my HIV. My doctor is also a good friend and church member. Both my pastor and my doctor have strengthened me. They accept me as I am. They don t ask me about my status. But another church leader said, Why don t we put people like this in some place and let them die? One Christian counsellor made a joke in front of everybody, saying to me, Don t get married without testing. Some people treat me well when we are in the church compound, but outside the compound they won t have anything to do with me. They reject me by their attitudes. Some people only want to give you advice they don t respect and accept me, and treat me as a normal person. Don t say to HIV+ve people, Don t worry, you are going to heaven. Imagine if I pointed a gun at your head and said, Don t worry, you are going to heaven! People don t ask for our opinion, they don t ask what we want. They think they know what we need and want! What we want is for them to respect our opinions. I have 4 cousins and a brother-in-law who have died of AIDS. I know what it is like to be infected and affected. We HIV+ve people cannot be open in prayer meetings and church worship, because those who pray with us will later gossip with others about our condition. I feel rejected among Christians in church, on Sundays, in prayer meetings. I want people to accept me as I am, and respect my opinion on HIV/AIDS issues. If you are working with people with HIV but don t have a real heart for them then don t do the work because you are creating more problems than solutions. Naobi Many pastors and church members have embraced HIV+ve people as their friends. Sadly, however, many Christians living with HIV/AIDS have experienced discrimination in the church in different ways: judgmental attitudes, exclusions, 3

4 superior and condescending attitudes, rejection, and denial of the opportunity to exercise leadership gifts. This often happens because of a lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS. When we discriminate against another person, we are denying that they have been made in God s own image, and that God loves them completely. Jesus is our example. On many occasions He treated with great compassion the very people whom society discriminated against. He did not condemn them, but embraced them. When we discriminate, we violate the person whom God has made and loves. In so doing we violate God himself. We believe that by embracing those who are otherwise stigmatized and discriminated against, the church will be enriched and blessed. Prevention Churches have the potential to play a crucial role in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. Churches have a presence and strong influence in many communities in the region. There is so much they can do to increase their members knowledge and understanding of the causes of HIV and its prevention. Those members can, in turn, help spread the message to the community at large. But it is the church leaders who need to break the silence and initiate frank, open and informed discussions about behaviours related to spread of HIV/AIDS such as sexual infidelity and unsafe sex, and drug abuse. The importance of this is that it encourages church members to talk more openly about HIV/AIDS, which is a crucial first step in prevention. Church leaders will benefit if they are provided with HIV/AIDS awareness and training programmes. We will enthusiastically work with the churches in the provision of these programmes. There is a need for teaching life skills in our church communities, incorporating Biblical values such as human worth, fidelity, and abstinence. A person whose selfesteem and self-respect is enhanced, and who has developed a strong character, is less likely to participate in risk behaviours. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has now spread beyond the high-risk groups into the general population. As a result the largest number of vulnerable people today are married women and their unborn children, not direct injecting drug users or sex workers, as commonly perceived. Most married women in our countries are faithful partners; many of the men are not. It is a compassionate response to teach about harm reduction in our churches in order to protect these vulnerable women and unborn children. 4

5 We believe that when these important pastoral responsibilities are fulfilled, the church will effectively protect its own members from this terrible pandemic. In so doing we will also be of greater service to the wider community. Care, Support, Treatment & Counselling Jesus provides us a model of compassion and healing. The church in following His example can provide a supportive environment where the infected and affected, both inside and outside the church, will have the freedom to access care and treatment. We ask you as church leaders to encourage and involve congregations in taking care of those who need healing, and deserve the support and care of a loving and compassionate community. There are several ways churches can provide essential support: They can commit themselves to nurturing an environment of understanding, respect and unconditional acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS. Our HIV+ brothers and sisters have particularly stressed the need to fully respect confidentiality. Too often church members gossip about what they have heard about a person living with HIV/AIDS in the context of prayer meetings and counselling. Great pain has been caused to these brothers and sisters when hurtful comments and jokes are directed at them, often behind their backs. In many instances church members have provided an essential resource for care and treatment. Home-based care, which allows the care receiver to stay in the comfort of their own home, depends on the friendship of others. Volunteers from churches can provide such Christ-like friendship, offering companionship, comfort, practical support, and human touch (which is so essential). They can truly be a light in the darkness, for actions such as these point our neighbours to the love of Christ. Care-giving is a ministry and deserves to be recognized as such. The church can greatly sustain care-givers by recognizing and acknowledging their ministry through prayer and financial support. We ask you as church leaders to do all you can to influence relevant decision-makers and policies, both in government and the pharmacy industry, so that medicines that can help sustain life are more available and affordable to those who are HIV+ve and need it on an ongoing basis. In the meantime we also urge churches, when and where possible, to make these medicines (antiretroviral treatment) available at a lower, subsidized price, to as many who need it as possible. Experience has shown that when churches cooperate together to do advocacy it is more likely to be effective. Much can also be achieved through 5

6 collaboration with non-church groups working on HIV/AIDS prevention care and treatment, including government departments. We have learned that in many contexts the most effective way of influencing relevant policies and government practice is by churches demonstrating our care through practical ministry. There can be real value in cooperating with other faith-based organizations seeking to combat the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS. In humility we can learn from them, and with humility we can share our understanding and experience. It is important not to simply treat people with HIV/AIDS as a cause, but always to respect them as people like you and us. In so doing we are preserving their freedom to participate in church and society. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is creating unprecedented numbers of orphans and widows in our societies. The Bible teaches us that we must take special care of these particularly vulnerable people. Therefore, we believe, God requires churches to develop creative and sustainable supportive strategies. There are many ways churches can increase awareness and understanding of these issues among their members. These include: - sermons and Bible studies relating to HIV/AIDS, - observing events such as World AIDS Day, AIDS Candlelight Memorial Service, and AIDS Prayer Day. - involving members in the production of songs, videos, skits, quiz, debates, dramas, which focus on HIV/AIDS issues. - inserting HIV/AIDS related articles in church newsletters, bulletins, etc. Of particular importance is the need to incorporate HIV/AIDS related topics into the education curriculum at all levels. This is urgently needed in our Bible Schools and Colleges where it could be included in existing health education, pastoral care and counselling curricula. We ask you as church leaders to work towards the incorporation of a just and comp assionate response to the needs of the neglected and marginalized people in our communities, including people living with HIV/AIDS, into your church mission policies and statements. We believe that when a church community responds to people living with HIV/AIDS out of love and with respect, rather than fear or judgmentalism, that it will be a powerful testimony to the presence of the life-giving Spirit of Christ. Resource Mobilisation Churches are capable of mobilizing substantial resources. We can, for example, recruit and train church members as volunteers, including those with relevant professional skills. Also, well-motivated congregations are generous providers of funds and other resources. 6

7 We believe that God has provided the church with all that it needs to fulfill its mission, which includes responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Dear brothers and sisters, we earnestly believe that it is the Lord who has laid it on our hearts to write this letter to you. We ask you, in Jesus name, to give it careful and prayerful consideration. God bless you Rev Dino L. Touthang Member of the international Micah Network Executive Signed on behalf of the participants at the Micah Network regional consultation on HIV/AIDS and the Christian Response, 5-8 July 2005, Kathmandu, Nepal. PS On our last morning together in Kathmandu we prayed the following prayer for ourselves. We offer it to you as a gift, in the hope that you will adapt it for use in your own churches. ''O God, in whom we live, and move and have our being, we praise and thank you for another day to live for you and for your people. As church leaders from various organisations and institutions, we continue to 'pool' all the possible and available resources to address the HIV/AIDS, in order to bring about healing and restoration to men, women and children who are affected and inflicted today. In our struggle, teach us how to reach out to them with the message of: comfort, and not condemnation, accommodation, and not isolation, restoration, and not destruction, humanization, and not de-humanization, healing, and not hurting, welcoming, and not shunning or rejecting, hope, and not hopelessness, love, and not hatred. May we learn to be like Florence Nightingale, giving light, comfort, and healing touch to the wounded. May we learn to be like Mother Teresa, able to see the face of Jesus in the faces of men, women and children, who are victims of all kinds of dehumanizing elements in our society. 7

8 May we learn to be like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, to be prophetic voices today. Above all, may we have the character of our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant us your wisdom and discerning power through the Holy Spirit, so that we may be enriched in order to be a blessing to others. Through Jesus Christ, with thanksgiving, we offer this prayer.'' DRAFTING COMMITTEE MEMBERS: 1. Mr. Bishnu Giri, Nepal 2. Mr. Krishna Man Shakya, Nepal 3. Dr(Mrs). Lalsangliani, N E India 4. Mr. D Ratno, N E India and 2 representatives from Myanmar Facilitators: 1. Mr. Steve Bradbury, Micah Network 2. Rev. Dino L. Touthang, Micah Network 8

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