Hendrew Lusey has never forgotten the words he first heard at a World Council of Churches (WCC) workshop on human sexuality in 2002. At that time, he had recently been appointed the regional coordinator for central Africa with the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA).
He observed as representatives from North America, Europe, Australia and Latin America submitted to the WCC thick reports on homosexuality. Churches in Africa were silent on issues of heterosexuality and HIV.
“No report from Africa was seemingly available in that meeting,” Lusey recalls. “Yet, Africa was and is still the epicentre of HIV.”
During the 3-day meeting, Lusey himself discussed homosexuality. “Yet, as far as Africa-related health and development problems are concerned, homosexuality was not deemed a priority in those days.”
A European friend of Lusey's kindly told him: “If you continue to think that people from other continents will have to identify and resolve issues that are negatively affecting your continent, you will have a long way to go...”
Lusey still thinks of that advice as his “wake-up call” – and he is acting accordingly.
Over the last decade, he has trained nearly 6,000 church leaders from 200 churches in central Africa and beyond. Still, he faces two major challenges: a culture-wide unwillingness to talk about human sexuality, and an ecumenism still in its infancy.
The challenge of communicating that most of those who contract HIV in Africa are heterosexual is coupled with the reality that most churches have difficulty discussing sex and sexuality. Some pastors still insist sex should not be discussed in church settings, according to Lusey. So, discussions about HIV, which inevitably involve discussions about sexuality, are difficult to initiate.
“I remember visiting a prominent revival church in Kinshasa where the church leader told me that 'his' church was open to discuss any issues apart from HIV. For him, HIV was an infection for ungodly people.”
Progress country by country
Despite these challenges, Lusey has watched thousands of people in central Africa find peace and welcoming attitudes among churches working with EHAIA.
Lusey and EHAIA have helped people in central Africa examine what is often an unequal power relation between women and men, reinforced by fundamentalist religious movements that aggressively preach submission for women while men are portrayed as decision-makers regarding sexuality.
“Women seeking information on sexuality and exercising their sexual rights are considered as 'bad women,'” explained Lusey, adding that there is a lack of a comprehensive sexuality education in religious institutions and homes.
Yet, even with entrenched cultural views that challenge EHAIA's progress, Lusey has observed a significant positive impact, country by country.
In the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, EHAIA has accompanied a 25-year-old woman who was living with HIV. This young woman is now leading an organization that comprises more than 1,500 people living with HIV.
In Cameroon, many churches were already responding to HIV challenges. To help them form a coalition, EHAIA founded the Christian HIV Initiative in Cameroon (CHIC). This interfaith platform brought together mainline churches that were working individually in the country to become a unified force to raise church voices with government institutions and others.
In the Central African Republic, where ecumenism is virtually misunderstood by most of evangelical church leaders, EHAIA has trained church leaders in many capacities, including HIV prevention, masculinities, femininities and proposal writing. The Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST) was initially reluctant to use EHAIA resource materials simply because of their ecumenical perspectives. But now BEST is inviting EHAIA to train its students and staff on the theology of HIV.
Lusey believes that, in many ways, the ultimate fruition of his work will become evident as young people carry out the vision they adopt for a church-based response to HIV.
“I found that all young people that I interviewed stated that churches should continue to teach them on sex, sexuality and HIV prevention even when many of them are not following church teachings in this context of HIV,” he said. “This finding was an encouragement for me in regard to the EHAIA work to figure out that my work among youth is still useful although resources are limited. Health and well being are not only key issues for young people themselves but also for the church and society at large.”
This article is the second in a portrait series presenting the work that EHAIA is doing through its regional coordinators and theological consultants. The series is published ahead of EHAIA’s 10th anniversary coming up in April 2012.
Read also: Building AIDS-competent churches in southern Africa, a portrait of Dr Susan Parry