The World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy International Reference Group and the WCC Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance HIV Strategy Group conducted their annual meeting via a series of online video conferences from 25-29 May.
The two groups have met jointly since 2016, bringing together 31 individuals from 18 nations in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and North America, including representatives from the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Conference of Churches in Asia.
Participants recognised strong similarities in their HIV response and in their encounters with the new pandemic. People living with HIV, key populations and HIV programmes are experiencing renewed challenges in accessing prevention, treatment, care and support for HIV and other chronic diseases. There are also parallels in the manifestation of fear, stigma and discrimination. The group also identified new opportunities for the HIV community to unite and act, and to provide their wealth of experience in accompaniment, service provision and advocacy to communities facing COVID-19.
Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC deputy general secretary, convened the meeting. She stated: “To conquer COVID-19, let us build on our experiences of dealing with the HIV pandemic and act holistically in the context of Health and Healing, to remain relevant and ready to respond to the emerging health challenges and serve the welfare of humanity.”
Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS, said: "HIV has taught us that overcoming pandemics needs a forthright and holistic approach. We need to acknowledge and depend on the experiences and the agency of those who are most affected by the pandemic and invest in a long-term commitment to stay the course, with resilience."
Bethel Mhone, co-moderator of the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy International Reference Group, said that online platforms and to meet 'virtually' are of critical importance, but to transform society, we cannot abandon real-life accompaniment and solidarity on the ground. “In this period of uncertainty and financial hardships, the young people in many regions and localities have unequal access to both internet and electricity and cannot afford expensive internet tariffs and access to online schooling,” said Mhone. “These differences are a major deterrent to truly equal engagement and participation.”
Responding to the directive of the WCC Executive Committee to bring more coherence to the whole field of Health and Healing work, the meeting discussed the proposal for the re-establishment of a WCC Commission on Health following the 11th WCC Assembly.
Rev. Godson Lawson Kpavuvu, co-moderator of the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy International Reference Group, said the group reflected together on participation at the assembly, as well as afterward. “We need the rich expertise and experience of the churches and communities from the different facets of healing ministry to work together, sharing knowledge and resources, to be an effective instrument of God,” said Kpavuvu.
Rev. Fr JP Mokgethi-Heath, who is also a member of both convening groups, expressed the hope that the healing ministry of the church will increasingly become a sacred and safe space where there is pain, exclusion and misunderstanding. “We need to reaffirm and strengthen health-related ministries' work alongside the services required to overcome sexual and gender-based violence, and in practising inclusive approaches to human sexuality,” he said. “The role of faith communities in providing faith specific sexuality education will be key to achieving this."
Rev. Dr Mikie A. Roberts, WCC programme executive for Spiritual Life and for Faith and Order, guided prayers for the meeting. “Our places of worship should submit to the will of God to remain centres of healing,” said Roberts. “Churches and church-run institutions are called to uphold the dignity of every child of God, celebrating their uniqueness, especially those who are in the margins of society and whose vulnerability is increased when excluded.”