Bishop says everyone affected by HIV

Bishop speaks at East Africa Methodist AIDS Summit

"Everyone in East Africa has experienced the death of a beloved family member due to HIV," declared the presiding bishop of the Kenya Methodist Church, the Rev. Joseph Ntombura. "Since we are all members one of another, the Body of Christ has AIDS."

Everyone in East Africa has experienced the death of a beloved family member due to HIV.

These provocative theological perspectives keynoted the opening of the first East Africa Methodist AIDS Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, July 23-24. Clergy, laity and bishops from Kenya and the neighboring countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia and Tanzania, attended. The summit was jointly sponsored by the Methodist Church of Kenya and the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee. Co-chairs were Charles Mwiti, Nairobi, Kenya; the Rev. Ann Gatobu, Lincoln, Neb.; and Donald Messer, Centennial, Colo.

AIDS a daily reality

"AIDS has faded from the front pages of the United States, but in Africa it is a daily reality," said the Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu, pastoral care professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Some 35 million people are living with HIV in the world, nearly 50% are women.

AIDS has faded from the front pages of the United States, but in Africa it is a daily reality,

Of this number, 70% of the world's HIV infected persons live in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 27.7 million living with HIV in the region, 58% are women. The rate of death from AIDS has declined to 1.5 million a year globally, but 1.1 million of them died last year in sub-Saharan Africa.

"This is not yesterday's disease," declared Bishop Catherine Mutua of the Kaaga Synod, Meru, Kenya. "It is today's challenge and our calling as Christ's healing representatives."

In a workshop focused on caring for vulnerable children, Mutua described how her churches were caring for 620 AIDS orphans with the help of United Methodist churches in Texas and the Center for the Church & Global AIDS in Colorado.

Calling Methodists to love, not condemnation

Kenya, with 1.6 million people living with HIV and an AIDS prevalence rate of 6.2, ranks fourth worldwide in HIV infections, just behind South Africa, Nigeria, and India. In calling the conference, Bishop Samuel Kathia of Nairobi pointed out the church's "mandate to offer care, advocacy and preventive education to the people." He urged United Methodists worldwide to partner with East African Methodists because "we have inadequate resources" to meet the needs. "Our goal is to improve human life and eradicate HIV and AIDS in our communities,” he said.

Former President of the World Methodist Council, retired Bishop Lawi Imathiu, Meru, Kenya, urged the participants to have "the mind of Christ" and "not to condemn people with HIV as sinners." Rather, he asked Christians to demonstrate the power of God as he led the assembly in singing, "Love lifted me, even me. When nothing else could help, love lifted me."

Range of issues addressed

The summit focused not just on biblical and theological themes, but also addressed medical realities, sexual health, condoms, and issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. Eunice Karanha, a doctor in Nairobi, reported that a third of new infections in Kenya occurred among men who had sex with men, prisoners, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients.

Stigma and discrimination remain stumbling blocks in efforts to reduce HIV infections.

Stigma and discrimination remain stumbling blocks in efforts to reduce HIV infections. The Rev. Mary Kinoti of Kenya emphasized in her workshop that failure to accept all persons in an inclusive church and community prohibits Christians from effectively combating the virus.

Anne Baraza, a Nairobi educator, pleaded for the church to break from society's taboos, overcome homophobia, and become welcoming communities of faith to LGBT persons.

Augustin Bahati of Rwanda spoke of the generation gap among Africans regarding LGBT issues. He called on the church to honestly address sexual education for the youth.

Stigma suppresses prevention

Bishop Joseph Ntombu referred to “Jesus the Stigmatized” and noted that maybe worse than the HIV disease is the way people stigmatize the sick. He portrayed a Jesus who reached out to the marginalized and might even ask today, “When did you see me ill with AIDS and care for me?”
Dr. Eunice Karanza said, “Married people in East Africa are threatened, since husbands often are unfaithful.”

Due to stigma and fear, men are not getting tested in Kenya, even though free anti-retroviral (ARV) medicine is available, according to Karanza. She said this results in HIV spreading to wives and other loved ones. 

“Therapy is prevention, but when only 600,000 Kenyans are getting ARVs and a million are not, then HIV is alive and spreading in East Africa,” Karanza emphasized. She said anti-retroviral medicine not only improves the health of a patient, but reduces the likelihood of contracting HIV almost to zero.

A plea for United Methodist help

Representatives from the DRC pleaded for United Methodists to help them spread information about HIV and AIDS. “So many of our women have been raped and so many soldiers are returning infected with HIV after years of fighting in the bush,” shared one representative. “They don’t know they need to use condoms with their wives.”

“HIV and AIDS are the ‘new normal’ in East Africa” declared a church leader from Uganda. “We urgently need help from United Methodists and our ecumenical partners to address the multiple challenges. Instead, United Methodists in East Africa are cut off from the rest of the denomination.”

An HIV positive man, who said he had two wives and five children, spoke of the support and education he had received from the Methodist Church. He urged participants, “Don’t fear whether you are a pastor or a bishop, just know your HIV status, come out and get treated.”

District Superintendent, the Rev. Marc Baliyanga of Kilgali, Rwanda, reported that after one United Methodist pastor publicly disclosed last year he was HIV positive, his ministerial colleagues surrounded him in accepting love and he was not excluded from leadership. 

Editor’s note: Donald E. Messer is co-chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund and executive director of the Center for the Church & Global AIDS. He is also president emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colo.