Ordained pastors living with HIV/AIDS
In this age of public disclosures of personal matters by well-known personalities, it still comes as a surprise—discomfiting, but also profoundly moving—for church persons in responsible positions to come out to disclose they are HIV-positive.
Here in the Philippines are two esteemed visitors, Reverend Canon Dr. Gideon Byamugisha of Uganda and Reverend Rosemary Phumzile Mabizela of South Africa. Both are positive for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) that could lead to the life-threatening AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
Both are outspoken advocates for the removal of the stigma attached to persons living with HIV/AIDS. Both remain in active service in their churches and in HIV/AIDS-related international campaigns. Both are still here in the Philippines as guests of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines’ Cosmopolitan Church in Manila.
I was fortunate and honored to have met the two advocates, along with Elijah Fung of a Hong Kong-based HIV education center at a forum last Monday. Fung is in touch with overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong.
HIV/AIDS, which first burst into the medical scene in the 1980s, has long been associated—often erroneously—only with irresponsible sexual behavior and drug use through syringes when in fact there are a number of other ways of transmitting and contracting the virus. This had added to the stigma attached to being HIV-positive. Before potent drugs to tame the virus were discovered, having HIV was a death sentence. Not anymore. But this does not mean lowering the guard. And this does not mean the large majority of people in this world have changed their attitudes toward persons living with HIV/AIDS.
In Africa where the two pastors come from, the incidence of HIV/AIDS is still relatively high compared to other regions of the world. And church persons in Africa have not been spared.
Byamugisha, who is soon to become a visiting professor at a US university, teaches courses on “religion, activism and socioeconomic development in Africa and the diaspora.” He has a long string of academic achievements. He is a founding member of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS.
A former Catholic, Mabizela is a Presbyterian pastor and executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV and AIDS.
Both had lost their spouse/partner to AIDS. Both with children, they have since remarried—Byamugisha to an HIV-positive woman—and found ways to beget HIV-negative children. When asked how, the irrepressible Mabizela answered with a loud guffaw, “The natural way!” She added with humor that HIV had done nothing to make her lose weight.
Their life stories are for the books.
Before the small press conference began, I whispered to Assistant Pastor Al Senturias and moderator Dr. Erlinda Senturias that I needed to know how the main speakers contracted HIV and how they learned about it without my asking so publicly. Sure enough, both spoke about the matter so spontaneously. (I can’t share their stories in detail because of space limitations. Suffice it to say that unknown to both, their deceased better halves had been HIV-infected.)
Some quick facts: HIV is transmitted through infected persons’ body fluids: blood (through transfusion), semen, vaginal/cervical fluids and breast milk. It is not contracted through touch, inhalation, food or drinking water. It cannot thrive outside the human body.
The main themes of the two pastors’ campaign talks everywhere are: “To end the stigma, to create safe spaces for people living with HIV/AIDS, and to heal fear through education.”
They have come up with catchy acronyms like SAVE: S for safer practices, including knowing your HIV status, delaying sexual debut, abstinence, mutual partner fidelity, safe blood, clean syringes, condom use; A for access to treatment and nutrition; V for voluntary counseling and confidential testing; and E for empowerment of women, youth, children and men.
They raise the need to end SSD DIM, or stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and misaction. And the need to end fear—of the unknown, of being contaminated, of lack of access to resources, of being excluded by loved ones, of leaving orphaned children, of not being able to do anything about AIDS, and of death.
One of the questions I asked was about disclosure. Does a person living with HIV have to make a disclosure? When, to whom, and how? Is it a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation? Is it necessary?
The answer I got from the two pastors was that their stature in their churches and communities was a factor in their decision to disclose. In the case of Byamugisha, he was very lucky that his bishop had been very supportive from the start. The decision of the two pastors to disclose was almost imperative in order that they could help in the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.
But not everyone living with the virus would have the same effect or influence. Some may experience rejection and discrimination in their families, workplace and communities. Not everyone needs to disclose or be compelled to disclose.
Both robust and energetic, Byamugisha and Mabizela are the picture of physical health on the outside. There is no denying that they are living with a virus that has yet to be totally conquered by science and medicine. Byamugisha revealed that he had gone through a near-death scare, but survived.
Both continue to be a blessing to the anti-HIV/AIDS advocacy, in the churches and outside, in their communities in Africa and in the world.
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