by Khopotso Bodibe
Faith communities often associate HIV infection with sexual immorality and sin. But what does it matter how one is infected? Health-e News explores this question with three ministers of religion who live openly with HIV.
FATHER J.P. HEATH: I’m J.P. Heath, Anglican priest in Johannesburg… I tested positive in 2000. When I came to be living with HIV, I can’t tell you. And really, it’s nobody’s business, anyway.
KHOPOTSO: It’s nobody’s business, but then you work in a particular sector of society that should be seen as being vocal when it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS – the Church. If you say it’s nobody’s business from what perspective are you really coming from?
FATHER J.P. HEATH: I’m coming from the perspective of saying that the questions that we ask; and (how we) relate to people living with HIV are wrong. And what I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be asking people ‘how long they’ve been living with HIV’ or ‘how they came to be living with HIV.’ What we should be asking them is ‘how are you living with HIV?’ That is the response of somebody who cares. The other route is just a response trying to solicit reasons to condemn a person.
KHOPOTSO: That fear of condemnation, says Father Johannes-Petrus Heath, or J.P. Heath as he’s popularly known, dogged his life when he found out that he was HIV positive.
FATHER J.P. HEATH: When I first tested HIV positive, I was initially filled with a deep sadness. And the sadness was the reality that I believed that I would die soon. And that obviously impacted on my family. The other side of it was the perceived and real stigma, which I felt that I would experience if I came out with my HIV status. I was anxious that if it was found that I was HIV positive I would lose my job in the Church. I would not be able to support myself, or my family… Furthermore, I felt that I needed to go to my Bishop, tell my Bishop of my HIV status, and then say to him ‘here I am now. You must do what you want to. Do your worst.’
KHOPOTSO: It took him six months to pluck up enough courage to share the news with his family and his Bishop. To his surprise both the family and the Bishop embraced him. Reverend Christo Greyling, HIV/AIDS advisor for World Vision in Africa - who happens to be a haemophiliac - got infected after an eye operation. For him, coming out about his HIV status to his Dutch Reformed Church was a long, arduous process.
REV. CHRISTO GREYLING: The biggest problem in the faith communities… is the direct association with sexual immorality, impurity, sin, promiscuity. And that caused the fear…
That caused me and my wife to be really afraid to come out. So, for five years we didn’t tell anyone except our real closest friends. But eventually, I had to take a leap in faith. I knew that God was calling me into this Ministry as a new kind of calling, and I didn’t know what the risk would be. I was surprised in terms of the eventual reaction. I expected a lot of negativity, but I had a huge lot of support. Again, my question is if I did contract the virus in a sexual manner, how would that Church have react(ed) at that stage? Would they still be as supportive of me as they were? Many often, people said it to me. They said ‘you contracted this virus innocently, but those people,’ meaning those people who got it another way, ‘they brought it on themselves.’
KHOPOTSO: Greyling has never relied on the fact that he got infected with HIV in a non-sexual manner. And how one got infected, he says, should not be the reason why others should pass judgement and scorn.
REV. CHRISTO GREYLING: It doesn’t matter at all how you contract HIV. The fact that you have it puts you in a situation of a desperate need of encouragement, support, and focus to go on with life… For me, I didn’t contract HIV in a sexual manner. But still, I’m a broken person. I do other things that disappoint myself; other people; or God. And therefore, I’m no better than anyone else. And therefore, the lesson that we need to teach people of faith is to understand what Grace and Forgiveness mean; and to oppose that with their own pride.
KHOPOTSO: Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha of Uganda is known as the first clergy-man in Africa to openly declare that he is HIV positive. He tested positive in 1992. He says HIV can happen to anyone.
REV. CANON GIDEON BYAMUGISHA: You know, we have four human fluids that bring HIV from one person to the other. That is: human blood, human sexual fluids and breast milk. The human sexual fluids are vaginal fluids and semen from the man. Now, if a man of the cloth has any of those fluids, then he’s a candidate to HIV infection… You can be infected through injections, you can be infected through blood, you can be infected through having sex with someone who is already HIV positive - whether it is in a lawful relationship or in a unfaithful relationship – that is a language the virus doesn’t understand very well. So, the only sure way I know I didn’t get this virus was through the breast-milk from my mother. But the other routes, I’m a candidate. I can’t deny it. So, one can get HIV/AIDS irrespective of their level of spirituality, present or past.
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