Health-E, HIV and the clergy – Part 4: Living with AIDS #186, 19 August 2004

by Khopotso Bodibe

For many people being diagnosed with HIV often spells a time of isolation and loneliness. Health-e News Service reports on a pioneering organisation aimed at helping those ministers of religion in Africa, who are either infected or affected by HIV.

KHOPOTSO: ANARELA is short for the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS. It was founded in November 2002 in Mukono, Uganda. The organisation does for religious leaders what support groups in villages and towns across the African continent, do for millions infected with HIV. Johannesburg-based Anglican priest, Father J.P. Heath, remembers the origins of ANARELA.

FATHER J.P. HEATH: Initially, my Bishop had asked me not to speak to my congregation. That was his way of protecting me in (the) Ministry. What that meant for me as a person was a time of profound loneliness because there was something about myself that I wasn’t allowed to talk about. And as a priest living with HIV I felt isolated. Then in August 2001, a big consultation was arranged in Boksburg, the All African Anglican Consultation on HIV and AIDS… At that consultation a priest got up - a priest from Uganda – Canon Gideon Byamugisha. He said: ‘I’m an Anglican priest, and I’m living with HIV.’ For the first time since I had found my own status, I knew that I wasn’t alone.

KHOPOTSO: Those two acts of self-affirmation and self-realisation by Father Heath and Rev. Canon Byamugisha respectively, were to be the beginning of a friendship that would lead to the formation in 2002 in Mukono, Uganda, of the first chapter of ANARELA. The network has subsequently formed in a number of other African countries. In South Africa, the movement started in May this year. Rev. Christo Greyling is one of the members.

REV. CHRISTO GREYLING: We just realised how big this need is… They cannot tell that they are HIV positive to anyone else because of the fear of judgement. Therefore, this support network is a confidential network where church leaders can come together, build their skills, get support, but eventually can become prophetic voices who address stigma.

KHOPOTSO: Through this network, ANARELA, have you been able to gauge as to how vast this problem is within the faith community – are there numbers that are being bandied about to say an X number of religious leaders are actually infected?

REV. CHRISTO GREYLING: Well, if we go back to the normal population figures and we look at the percentages of adults (people) between 15 and 49, who are HIV positive, we see that those people are also people of faith that very often belong to churches.

Then we must realise that there is no difference in the percentages or incidence between people of faith and people in the church, or people outside the church. And, therefore, what we are seeing in the other networks we’ve started is in Uganda we had 50 church leaders already who said ‘I need to belong to this network.’ In Kenya, we had 40 people who attended. In Malawi, we expect nearly 60 now that will come to a retreat there. (In) South Africa then, specifically, there must be a huge number of people who at this stage are too afraid to go anywhere.

KHOPOTSO: According to Father J.P. Heath, in South Africa, ANARELA has 15 members. He says the number might be small, but it’s powerful.

FATHER J.P. HEATH: The reality is that we have 15 people who are highly motivated; 15 people who are committed to providing support and care for others in the same situation. The position of religious leaders who themselves are living with HIV is unique in terms of being able to overcome the stigma which is experienced in society and the discrimination which is experienced in society. And the main reason for that is that the stigma and discrimination, the inaction, the mis-action, the silence and the denial around HIV and AIDS is something which really originated in religious institutions, and we have to be the ones who actually break that down.

KHOPOTSO: By virtue of the fact that disclosure is not a requirement for a minister to join the organisation… that this is some sort of confidential network… some people would argue that that in a way would lead to missing the opportunity of actually fighting the whole issue around stigma and discrimination?

FATHER J.P. HEATH: No, because we don’t wish to stigmatise and discriminate against people. So, what we do is we build a person’s capacity until they come to the point of being able to self-disclose and make a difference in their congregation and community. We work from the perspective not of trying to force them into issues, but aiding them to come to a point of living with it comfortably. By forcing a person into disclosure, the only thing that you do is you create anxiety and antagonism. If you actually build the capacity of a person to disclose openly, they become a very strong role model in their congregation and community.




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