U-C: What I See

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On Church Being Church: Responding to the HIV/AIDS Crisis


The building was of cinder-block construction and more than forty years old. The walls were whitewashed, but dirty, and the concrete floor was badly chipped and cracked. There were bars over the windows, but most of the window glass was gone. There were two naked light bulbs that dangled from the ceiling in a room that was about twenty feet wide and forty feet long. We were at the Women’s Development Center of the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa, and our small delegation was meeting with three pastors (one woman, two men) who are part of a team working to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The table around which we sat was covered with a pink, tie-dyed cloth; produced by the women in the center, it was a clear sign of the indomitable spirit of the women of this place. It was hot – very hot.

HIV/AIDS in this country and across Africa is a problem that defies my imagination. The DR Congo has roughly fifty-two million people, and close to three million people have HIV or AIDS. (As usual, I’m long on reflection but short on detail. If you’re interested, please go to http://www.pcusa.org/health/usa/healthinfo/hivaids/resources.htm for links to better statistics and information.) This is a problem that seems to touch every aspect of church life, and preoccupation about it has been widespread among the church leaders with whom we’ve met. It consumes the energy of health care workers in the church’s hospitals, medical training schools, and public health programs. It is a part of the daily routine of educators who respond to the needs of the children. It is a constant reality for pastors as they try to support families. It is a major concern of the women’s programs in the churches. It is a theme for those tasked with working with youth and young adults. One youth leader explained to me that they actually plan youth events for late afternoon each day because they know that is when teenagers are most likely to be involved in sexual activity.

I recently read a speech given by Rev. Nyansako-ni-Nku, who is both the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the Cameroon, as well as the President of the All African Conference of Churches. He was invited to speak at the conference organized by the Medical Benevolence Foundation in Phoenix in April. Here’s how he described the problem. “The spectre of HIV/AIDS paints a catastrophic scenario in Africa. Many families have been wiped out, whole villages have vanished and communities have been decimated. Vital services are grinding to a halt because the work force has drastically dwindled due to HIV/AIDS. It has been estimated that about half of the world’s infected persons are living in the African region, which is also ridden by poverty and other big killers like malaria and tuberculosis.”

A little over a year ago the CPK commissioned twelve volunteers to help the church coordinate its response to the AIDS pandemic. The group included men and women who were pastors, lay people, and teenagers. They began by training one hundred volunteers to become organizers and community educators about this issue. The first step in the community is to convince church members that they should take the test to determine whether they have the virus. Though there is little access to the anti-retroviral drugs needed to treat the symptoms of the disease, it is critical to identify those who are infected and to ensure that they understand the disease and what it could mean to infect someone else. There are many myths about this disease and the educational task is huge.

One woman explained to us, “The church has identified the spread of AIDS as a theological problem.” The reasoning is that it is largely spread through human behavior, and changing behavior is the work of the church. “However,” explained the youth pastor, “the church has actually been part of the problem because AIDS spreads as fast as it does because no one wants to talk about sex, and the church is one of the biggest offenders.” This group sees the Bible as the best possible resource to guide their church and society in developing a response, and they insist that any response that doesn’t deal with what the Bible has to say about sexual intercourse outside of marriage is morally bankrupt. Worse, in this spot in the world it has clearly become a matter of life and death.

They take it a step further, however. After careful Biblical study, the team is convinced that the Bible has a lot to say about stigmatizing any group of people, and that the stigma attached with this disease causes as many problems as the disease itself. “Once again,” said Pastor Kapinga, “We turned to the Bible to learn about how we should respond to those who are infected with HIV/AIDS and are stigmatized because of it, and we discovered it is a rich resource.”

The team has met several times a month for almost a year to organize their response. Together, they have designed rough drafts of ten Bible studies, and two of the studies have been edited and are ready for use. They hope to finish editing the other studies over the next few months. With help from a church in the United States, they will publish the studies in one volume for the church. Then their promoters will go to work to train pastors and lay leaders in the churches on how to lead the studies.

There is another response to HIV/AIDS that I want to tell you about as well. Though I didn’t get to see this one with my own eyes, it was described to me by Presbyterian Mission Co-worker Caryl Weinberg, who works on helping the churches of Central and West Africa to respond to the crisis. The CPC program to fight AIDS – called “APCS” - works with youth groups around the Kasai region. They have developed a very effective program to do AIDS education and awareness in rural villages like the ones we visited in the Kasai.

The idea is simple, and kind of ingenious. They work with village leaders to hold workshops that are aimed at young people who come to learn about the realities of HIV/AIDS, including how it is spread and what the myths surrounding it are. As a part of the day, boys and girls soccer teams are organized and they are given free soccer balls. Soccer balls are a hot item and are hard to come by here, and it is a very good incentive for participation in the workshops. The hope is that the soccer teams will provide a vehicle through which continuing education can take place. A similar program is being promoted by SANRU, the non-governmental, rural health office that is working all over the country.

It would be easy to despair in confronting this problem. However, the people of God are creative, energetic, and smart. That’s a good thing, because the problems that confront God’s people are significant. Everywhere I go – in the Congo, in Colombia and Central America, on the U.S./Mexico border, and in communities across the United States - I see examples of what I refer to as “the Church being Church.” Those churches share a common approach. They assess the situation, pray continuously for God’s guidance and wisdom, and get started – no matter how overwhelming or intractable a problem may seem. I’m excited about the ways the PC(USA) is a part of God’s work here, and I dream that this important work of “Church being Church” will continue to fan the flames of the movement of the Holy Spirit across our denomination.

Please pray for our brothers and sisters who are ministering to those with HIV/AIDS, and for thousands of families that are struggling with this disease.