Thirty-five years into the response to HIV and AIDS, it remains a disease that not only thrives on, but exploits the lines of exclusion and inequality in society. In the Philippines, where there has been an alarming increase in people testing positive for HIV, the country’s National Council of Churches (NCCP) recognized that more than words were needed. While dialogue and debate were important, they needed to translate into action, given the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor in Filipino society, and a faith-based and societal milieu still dominated by a sex-negative theology.

While it may seem a radical departure from what some would consider a gentler, pastoral approach, the general secretary of the NCCP, Rev. Rex Reyes Jr., is adamant: churches need to “walk the talk.”

NCCP’s ongoing campaign, tagged #PreventionNOTCondemnation, does not come out of the blue. For several years now, the council has been engaged in stepping up efforts to educate its member churches to challenge the stigma that clings to HIV and instead provide evidence-based prevention, care and treatment information and services.

New HIV cases number in the hundreds, which according to NCCP means scores of new infections per day. For NCCP this is a distressing situation, especially as people submit for HIV testing at a late period, when HIV is already advanced and can lead to AIDS. But forcing testing is not the answer; instead, NCCP believes that people should be encouraged to submit for voluntary counseling and testing (VCT).  “We challenge the varied myths and misconceptions of our faith communities about the HIV virus and the manner of infections,” explains Reyes. “Many [people] still think that they are immune or not affected by HIV. We are educating our religious leaders and church workers to help people understand that they are vulnerable to HIV simply because they are human. The HIV virus does not discriminate and, like any virus, can infect anyone.”

NCCP is not alone in stepping up its HIV campaign. The World Council of Churches (WCC) recently, through a pastoral letter, called for a recommitment to tackling HIV, and eliminating AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.  WCC’s commitment to ending AIDS by 2030 builds on an earlier call to action in June 2016 by diverse faith communities during the United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS. The call to action not only included signing their names to their commitment, but included a pledge to take the call back to their own communities, and adopt strategic targets to once and for all end AIDS.

In the run-up to AIDS 2016 in Durban, South Africa, Reyes spoke about the critical need to step up the campaign in the Philippines:

WCC: Why do you believe that it is so critical, from a faith perspective, that we tackle HIV and its attendant stigma?

Reyes: We need to deal with HIV and AIDS because it negates the divine promise of abundant life.  We need to deal with the stigma as an initial step to healing. Now that NCCP has committed to building compassionate and caring churches for people living with HIV and their families, many of our workshops have been eye-openers for awareness and understanding.  In many ways, these workshops become spaces for healing. We are glad that our churches are increasingly becoming more affirming, with a stance toward more open discussion on sex, gender, and sexuality. We deal with HIV and AIDS issues because they are issues affecting human dignity. That’s a theological statement. As a political statement we deal with HIV and AIDS issues because they are human rights. In either case, these are justice issues.

WCC: Are there examples that you can cite that have made a difference?

Reyes:  When we started NCCP’s programmatic engagement on HIV in 2011, participants in the workshops indicated that the whole aspect of human sexuality should be included in the discussions. We feared we might lose our focus on HIV awareness and the campaign to eradicate stigma if we did so. We were proven wrong. All of these have to be discussed though it meant increasing resources, and we do not have much. I am elated that several of our church leaders have agreed to undergo HIV testing, not only for the sake of being tested but also as a way of encouraging others, especially our young people, to undergo the same. There is growing enthusiasm among our member churches and partner organizations of people living with HIV (PLHIV) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to work together in promoting HIV prevention and encourage testing in the communities. Our member churches have also been proactive in seeking care and support for PLHIV within and outside their faith communities. The literature we receive from ecumenical partners is also a form of encouragement to our churches to deal with issues surrounding human sexuality in so far as they have recommendations or specific actions that can be adapted for local implementation and in so far as they provide other perspectives that affirm the need for awareness and the removal of stigma. Overall, the program challenges myths and misconceptions about HIV.

WCC: When you say that you “challenge the varied myths and misconceptions of our faith communities about the HIV virus,” what are these myths and misconceptions?

Reyes: Many church people, both young and old, would usually say in the beginning of our SAVE workshops that HIV and AIDS do not affect them since this is a disease of prostitutes, gays, and drug users. Some also held the view that HIV can be transmitted through saliva, toilet seats, and mosquitoes. Participants shared that these misconceptions have contributed to their discriminatory attitudes towards people living with and personally affected by HIV. Providing accurate medical information, listening to PLHIV and using scripture to change attitudes in a safe space have helped to address these misconceptions.

WCC: Why would you say, after some 35 years of responding to HIV, is there such an uptick in new infections?

Reyes: The Philippines is faced with the reality of the widening gap between the rich and the poor. In recent years, high-earning individuals have enjoyed significantly faster growth in incomes compared with people from the middle- and low-income classes.

In our context, it is important to tackle the environment where risky behaviors in relation to HIV infections occur. Landlessness, joblessness, and unjust wages have fueled risky behavior such as commercial sex and drug use (through injection). The persisting gender inequalities in Filipino society have resulted in physical/sexual violence particular to women and LGBT people have also fueled the uptick of new infections. These are in addition to the lack of awareness on the whole issue of HIV and AIDS as well as the myths that we said need to be broken. Our government too, needs to do more in order for PLHIV to access up-to-date medical care. This is particularly wanting in our context.

WCC: You have been quoted as saying that “we are called to reflect” on the time that others “are made to suffer because of their gender identity and sexual orientation and how this negates the realization of life in its fullness.” Can you expand on what you mean by negating the “realization of life in its fullness?” What are the personal impacts; how does this shape our world? How do we enact a different way of doing/seeing/understanding to cease seeing HIV as a punishment?

Reyes: I hope this is not implying that we are late in engaging in programs to combat HIV and AIDS and the stigma as a result of it. Given that this country is a predominantly Christian country, the church has to reflect on some of those perspectives that make it exclusive or of being perceived as exclusive, however it claims to be welcoming or hospitable. At the same time, we need to act because of the urgency to make people aware that we are all vulnerable to the virus.

Our government needs to be taken to task, too. For instance, it took more than 13 years to pass the Reproductive Health Law that mandates government to fund the distribution of free contraceptives, requires government hospitals to provide reproductive health services, and mandates public schools to teach sex education. Of course part of the reason was the strong lobby against it from the church, mainly the Roman Catholic Church. Today, the law has yet to be implemented in its entirety.

With awareness comes the need to affirm and celebrate loving relationships amid diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. It also means going beyond the “being gay is fine but you have to be celibate” stand. While there is reason to rejoice in that some of the NCCP member churches are moving in the direction of challenging stigma and discrimination around HIV and AIDS, there is much to be done when it comes to its connection to sex and sexuality.

But the NCCP has taken a major step. Its convention resolution called for a more intentional sex and sexuality education for the youth. This is with the understanding that if Christ’s promise is abundant life, clearly anything that denies or prevents that promise from being realized must be exposed and dealt with. The SAVE tool kit has already allowed us to unlock many of these topics, and we have seen people freed from previously limiting understandings of human sexuality. Also important is to ensure that we do not “talk about” the LGBT community. We talk to and with them. We hold conversations.  This is where partnership with LGBT organizations is crucial.

Yes, we need to reflect on what our faith tells us in the light of objective realities, the advances made in science and biblical scholarship. If the Bible is the book yesterday, today and the future it must have refreshing wisdom to renew our faith in ways we have not known previously. Time was when labor was seen as a punishment. It doesn’t seem to be a view held commonly today.

WCC: How would you describe, at a personal level, what “hospitality” signifies for you?

Reyes: Who should be hospitable to whom? I think today the call is for a radical transformation to affirm inclusive churches. It is one thing to say all are welcome. It is another to say we are all in this together. Baptism - fidelity to what baptism demands – places all Christians under the same judgment. (Matthew:25) In an interfaith setting, upholding human dignity at all times is the starting point. Hospitality is a two-way process.  We are guests and hosts at one time or the other. Zacchaeus hosted Jesus Christ in his home. While in that home, Jesus welcomed Zacchaeus and his household.

WCC: What constitutes a path to wholeness and healing?

Reyes: Recognizing what is wrong is the first step. There is a system that dehumanizes, that marginalizes, that excludes and that makes people vulnerable. Sadly, this way espouses negative self-image. Sadly, too, some of what we claim to be tenets of the faith amplified and continue to amplify those social conditions. To listen to the voices of the vulnerable and those excluded is a fundamental Christian praxis and to look into those ways we may have contributed to their situation is a way toward being more compassionate. Solidarity is to place myself in their situation.  In the sharing of stories that follow – the genuine conversations that ensue – we begin to have a common understanding of objective realities that is liberating as it leads to common action. Love after all is not to be stated. It has to be lived out. And how much more profound can such be lived out if not to be one with them who are in pain because they are denied or prevented from that love? In our world today, we have to address this “othering.”

WCC: How does “stigma around sex and sexual debut” manifest itself in homes, churches, schools and workplaces?

Reyes: In our SAVE workshops we ask participants to answer the question “when and how did you learn about sex?” Responses would point to their friends, the internet, and school. Home, church or faith community were not in the list. It would entail a long discussion why this is so in the Philippine context. Suffice to say this alone says lot. For one, it is telling us there is a lot of work to be done.

WCC: How has this campaign been received? Does it have its limitations, and what successes have you noted, if any, in relation to NCCP having launched this campaign? Have people been receptive?

Reyes: On the whole it is positive. I cannot give an objective impact assessment as we have yet to undertake that. The NCCP is a small outfit when compared to the Roman Catholic Church. We have to start from where we are – our member churches and the larger community where they are. If the enthusiastic crowd of young people attending the workshops, the churchwomen taking active part in discussing sex and sexuality, and church workers including pastors and priests and theological students are likewise engaged in conversations on HIV, AIDS and human sexuality are any indications, we are doing well in the program. Add to that an aggressive social media campaign with some of our posters becoming viral especially in 2015. Advocates are growing and we need to sustain the campaign. We wish we can provide a haven for PLHIV as well as resources to provide for their medical sustenance. We pray and hope that day will come soon. But, we pray harder that HIV will be contained and that there will be no more discrimination of any sort.

WCC-EAA Live the Promise: HIV Campaign

WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA)

WCC member churches in the Philippines