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Dealing as a church with HIV

Dealing as a church with HIV

Rev. Godson Lawson at the WCC headquarters in Geneva.

13 October 2014

“HIV and AIDS is not just a public health issue. It is a multi-layered social issue – an issue churches in West Africa should not ignore,” says Rev. Godson Lawson, a pastor in the Methodist Church in Togo, a country where 110,000 people are living with HIV and 6,600 lives have been lost to the pandemic, according to recent UNAIDS estimates.

Lawson, an activist working on issues of HIV and AIDS since 1994, serves as vice-chair of the international reference group of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) of the World Council of Churches.

The churches in Togo, Lawson says, have not been fully engaged in addressing the issue of HIV which has affected the Western African region over many years. “Churches have been struggling with theologizing an appropriate stance on the use of condoms, for example, an issue deeply linked with the spread of HIV and prevention,” he says.

Now, however, Lawson observes, churches in Africa are showing more concern. “Through the EHAIA supported programmes we are promoting tools to combat the pandemic, while simultaneously offering a comprehensive and contextual response to HIV and AIDS,” he says.

Lawson explains, “In the EHAIA projects we are targeting the ‘key population’. This ‘key population’ includes people who inject drugs, sex workers, men having sex with men (MSM) and groups comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. This is one segment of society that is highly vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. Surveys have shown that MSM make up about 17 to 20 percent of the people living with the virus, while sex workers and people injecting drugs make up roughly 29 percent each.

“Up till now churches have not been fully engaged in rescuing these vulnerable people,” says Lawson, who himself has lost friends and colleagues to HIV.

“What we don’t realize is that people in this category have families. Many of these people are married. And this factor eventually becomes a link in the spread of HIV to the general population. In this situation, churches must not say they cannot help people,” he said.

This is an area that EHAIA is focusing on, Lawson says. “To help vulnerable people, we have initiatives offering protection, access to care and treatment, and counseling. This is a new area for the churches, but an important one, due to the rigid cultural mindset in our societies,” he adds.

Challenges, achievements and responsibility

Lawson calls it a challenge to talk about the sexual orientation with people. “Although we know in our families, among our friends, we have such people, we still do not talk about these brothers and sisters of ours,” he said. Lawson explained that EHAIA programmes have mobilized funds and offered opportunities to vulnerable groups to express themselves in the face of stigma and discrimination.

“Among these groups, many have considered suicide for not being able to express their pain. This is a significant field for pastoral counseling for the churches,” Lawson said.

In this situation, Lawson calls this a “responsibility of the churches to contextualize a Bible study which gives an opportunity to those who are seen as excluded so they can become part of the whole process of the renewal of life in Christ in the church.”

In dealing with HIV, Lawson sees progress in some areas, especially in West Africa. EHAIA, he explains, is partnering with national AIDS commissions in Togo and Burkina Faso. “We are in a process of creating an observatory on stigma and discrimination. We are fully engaged with the state actors to see how we can contribute our expertise as churches in dealing with HIV,” he says.

Lawson particularly pointed out the importance of chaplaincies in the churches, since they work outside congregations in different fields. He said the chaplains in West Africa are not fully trained to address HIV and AIDS-related issues effectively. It is even more important to have training for chaplaincies in the armies, he points out. “With the prevalent threat of HIV and AIDS we are witnessing in West Africa, the army is where we can find vulnerable groups like MSM,” Lawson said.

Lawson added that if chaplaincies working in the prisons, industries, markets and other spheres are trained, a more effective and viable response to HIV could be possible.

More information on Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa

WCC member churches in Togo