Can you talk about your experience with WCC-EHAIA, the challenges and the victories?
Pastor Lawson: Yes, I can say that I was at the beginnings of WCC-EHAIA, already in 2001, during its creation. I actively participated in the drafting of its action plan. At the time, it was important to ensure that the churches in Africa could intervene in the fight against HIV in Africa, since the situation was alarming.
WCC-EHAIA tried courageously to tackle the problem with the churches and to say that the struggle against HIV is not a struggle against Satan, but against a virus. This took some time, and the success in this struggle was significant from the outset because fellow pastors and priests who are HIV-positive got involved with the churches, which drastically mitigated the phenomenon of stigmatization and discrimination.
Another matter that was successful was publishing. The publications are numerous. There are theological publications on compassion, on stigmatization. There are publications on the issue of the youth, and there are publications on violence, particularly gender-based violence, rape. In 2009, WCC-EHAIA had reached, in one year, more than 20,000 people.
Another problem which WCC-EHAIA must tackle concerns the development of ideas on the consideration of vulnerable populations. The struggle has been noted by WCC-EHAIA, but communities are reluctant to get involved. Cultural aspects have emerged.
I believe that this work is always ongoing. One very big success of WCC-EHAIA has to do with engaging with adolescents and young people. In less than three years, WCC-EHAIA has released several documents on adolescents and young people, one in particular in cooperation with Ibadan State University, Nigeria. The manual is on adolescent behavior, prevention methods and the languages that young people use. WCC-EHAIA took an inventory of these languages, which allowed parents and faith leaders to understand the slang of young people.
With regard to healing from diseases such as HIV and COVID-19, we must integrate prayers with treatment procedures. This is what we call the issue of healing not by faith alone. WCC-EHAIA has conducted this discourse head-on with adherents of traditional African religions, which use herbs, bark, and roots. We came to the conclusion that God heals, but that people must also be treated. This is holistic healing, and treatment is a job that doctors and healers must do. We have shifted the issue of faith healing only to the holistic side of divine intervention. A person must be treated before he can heal since healing involves the complete spiritual and psychological realization of the entire human being. We have managed to find a modus vivendi, which says that while treatment is certainly available, people must also be supported so that they can heal.
There is an entire debate on the issues of HIV and COVID-19. WCC-EHAIA is involved since it has the experience of facilitating education on stigmatization over a long period of time. New forms of stigmatization are developing in connection with COVID-19. Particularly social stigmatization, where an entire category of the population can be stigmatized because COVID-19 was found in a neighborhood, or because of its ethnic origins, especially Asian. WCC-EHAIA already possesses a repository of knowledge to conduct this work; we are using the publications we have written on stigmatization in order to adapt them to COVID-19 awareness.
As for supporting people, WCC-EHAIA must adapt to new communication tools to reach people who are in psychological distress. In West Africa, we have had problems tracing people who are on antiretrovirals, who are confined and who are HIV-positive and COVID-positive. There is a plea to provide antiretrovirals ahead of time. This work is done with the national councils for the fight against HIV, and we continue to create virtual groups to support people since physical contact is becoming increasingly difficult.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the ecumenical response to HIV?
Pastor Lawson: Unfortunately, the pandemic has become a political tool to the extent that people see impositions, restrictions, freedoms – rightly or wrongly, at the same time. People only talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, without mentioning HIV. I'm afraid that HIV will not wait until the end of the pandemic to re-emerge again, because during the period of confinement there is domestic violence, there is rape.
To mention the case of a secondary school near my house, there were more than 50 girls who became pregnant after the first phase of confinement. I strongly fear that if we fail to draw attention to HIV pandemic now, the struggle we have been waging for over 35 years will have been in vain. So from now on, we will have to start by raising awareness – in our communication structures, among young people and faith leaders – of the challenges facing ecumenical HIV response.
Another important fact is that WCC-EHAIA has succeeded in integrating HIV prevention and treatment education in Sunday schools and church-owned schools. Because if we talk to children between the ages of 6 and 15 about HIV, when they enter adolescence, they will be prepared to deal with their sexuality. This task has begun but needs more attention by faith leaders and faith communities. I believe that if we emphasize the issue of children, we will ensure the permanence of the struggle and that children will take charge of the fight without us having to make as much effort as we have for the past 20 years of WCC-EHAIA.
Forty years ago, HIV was isolated in a laboratory. What is your vision of the response to HIV in the years to come, particularly in connection with one point of reference – the Sustainable Development Goals (2030)?
Pastor Lawson: The Sustainable Development Goals talk about the fight against poverty, about access to health and water. Health for all is of fundamental importance to vulnerable segments. When we talk about health for all, we are also talking about HIV. It is therefore important to reorient the work toward children and adolescents, thereby ensuring the permanence of this work. The second point is access to treatment for everyone. Churches and the World Council of Churches will have to continue sending pastoral letters to urge the government and churches to advocate universal access to treatment and care. Because it is not effective everywhere. Thus, we must always emphasize the situation of exclusion that exists, and which prevents people from having access to care and treatment.
The last point is the issue of inclusion in the fight against HIV. Inclusion is important since there are marginalized populations within our communities that have difficulty accessing care. The chaplains will have to expand their efforts, as in the first days of the fight against AIDS. I remember how, 30 years ago, we had evening consultations where people came incognito; we advised them and referred them to doctors who maintained confidentiality. Why not do this with those who are in vulnerable groups? Inclusiveness allows the church to grow and be a church open to all.
How can your experience with WCC-EHAIA influence your responsibilities in the Methodist Church of Togo today?
Pastor Lawson: When I was inaugurated, the entire government of Togo was there: the prime minister, with eight ministers and as many secretaries of state and directors of institutions of the Republic. We agreed to give the floor to two speakers. WCC-EHAIA was the first to speak on ecumenical HIV response. Fortunately, WCC-EHAIA subtly linked the issue of HIV to gender-based violence. Both religious leaders and government officials agree that campaigns such as Thursdays in Black help unite us in creating a world without rape and violence.
The Togolese prime minister is a woman who is very sensitive to the issue of gender, to the issue of women's development, to the issue of sexual violence. Thus, she asked us to meet with the officials of Togo and to ensure that we join our efforts in the fight against AIDS – and at the same time, in the fight against gender-based violence and violence against women. The prime minister herself tweeted the powerful ideas she had expressed. On the second point, she stated to the people clearly that I would continue to defend the noble cause, particularly the struggle against AIDS, the struggle against violence, and the struggle against inequality. I therefore believe that with my own voice, now, I can defend these causes, particularly the struggle against HIV and AIDS. I continue to do so.
I will also use my position as the head of a church to sensitize my colleagues, especially in the regions. When I speak, HIV will always be a point of reference for me.