Strengthening Religious Leaders Responses to HIV


Prepared by Sophie Dilmitis World YWCA SRHR and HIV and AIDS Coordinator on the occasion of the Multi-Faith Pre Conference for the Breakout Session : “Together We Can Do More: Strengthening religious leaders in the response to HIV”

Where is leadership missing, where could it make a difference?

Religious leaders and faith based organisations play a vital role – where sometimes actions speak louder than words and words, that are so powerful, can make or break a person’s life.  I spoke in Mexico, two years ago at the Ecumenical Pre Conference about this topic and in my presentation I started by asking a few questions.

I asked what is it that makes one infected person lead a responsible, healthy, productive life and another not?  What makes a person get tested, accept their status and do something about it and be proactive about their health and another not?

I would like to share with you a personal story.  About a week ago my husband and I had a friend over to stay with us.  She works in Zimbabwe and is supported by a church in Geneva to offer support to people living with HIV, orphans and vulnerable children and is doing the most wonderful work – especially as a messenger of God who is really supporting people in need.  We were all sitting together discussing the project with the church that was supporting. It had been a very rich dialogue that ended in prayer.

As she was praying she mentioned that people really need to be healed and that God Hates AIDS.  I was very surprised by this statement but I did not say anything.  I looked around the room and people were nodding in agreement. There were a number of religious leaders in the room and no one else, except my husband and I seemed surprised by this statement.  I was very angry but I waited until we got home to speak to her about how I was feeling.

I confronted her and said that as a person living with HIV – I found this statement very damaging and I absolutely did not believe it to be true.  Further more I do not believe that the word ‘hate’ belongs to God. I explained that the God that I know is a god of love and does not hate anything, especially HIV which is just a virus.

The argument continued and she said that death and disease were not part of God’s plan – this was before Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the garden of Eden, which changed life as it was meant to be for us.  In that moment we became mortal.

After a long discussion she understood why it was wrong to say this and how damaging that would be for someone living with HIV to hear that God hates what is living inside their body.  If a person is living with HIV – we have to do what we can to co exist with this virus. We cannot hate what is alive and well inside our bodies.  I know this as I have been living with HIV for 16 years.

Through conversations like this – I am beginning to understand not only theology but also why some of these messages are very complex for religious leaders. Religious leaders are already overwhelmed with how to address human rights in the AIDS response and how to address HIV through a lens that is not moralistic and value based.

So to answer my own question, what we need today is to ensure that people, especially religious and community leaders have the right messaging.  We all have to make sure that this happens. I think what we are missing today is dialogue between religious leaders and people living with HIV who are activists and part of the AIDS response. I was so lucky to be in that room so that I could explain why what she was saying would have been so damaging to a person living with HIV.  I was so happy to be there as an empowered person to say this is how PLHIV might interpret what you just said.  Sometimes being well intentioned is not enough.

To me this is the kind of leadership that is missing and what could make a huge difference – we need to be able to speak to each other and explain what messages are damaging, why and what could be said instead that would still support the word of the God of life and love as well as people living with HIV.

So I really wanted to offer this personal experience for today’s discussions.

I think what could make a difference is dialogue.  Dialogue that needs to start on the premise that we don’t know it all, we can and should always be learning from each other, that our differences in our faith and diversity should be seen as a gift and not a barrier.  We should start with the premise that we need to be able to dialogue respectfully to change what we can.  As activists we need to be able to have the wisdom to know what we can and cannot change in our own lives, in our messaging and in the AIDS response.

Globally religious leaders and faith-based organisations are responding to HIV and in many countries they are providing the bulk of the health care and access to ARVs – this is something that we do not take for granted. We just need to ensure that the messaging supports the services and this is where we still need more work.