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Journeys of faith: church-based responses to HIV and AIDS in three southern African countries

Gideon Byamugisha, Lucy Y. Steinitz, Glen Williams and Phumzile Zondi

Strategies for Hope

June 2002

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Faith is the mainspring of the soul. Through faith, our aims, desires, plans and purposes are translated into physical, social, economic, political, artistic and spiritual achievements. Over the centuries, positive religious faith has stimulated individual and collective actions for the improvement of people, collectively and individually, in many different spheres of life. History also abounds with instances of religious faith, applied negatively, bringing untold suffering, injustice and evil into the world.

For many centuries, religious faith and spirituality have been major resources in promoting health and well-being, and in helping people to cope with the impact of disease. This is especially the case in Africa, where religious beliefs play a major role in shaping people’s personal identities, thought patterns and perceptions of disease, and the decisions they make which affect their health.

Faith communities* in Africa therefore have the potential to play a pivotal role in determining how individuals, families and whole communities respond to the HIV epidemic, which is the greatest health and development challenge facing the continent today. Indeed, in many African countries, churches and other faith-based organisations** have been very much to the fore in developing and spreading innovative and effective responses to the HIV epidemic. Strategies such as home-based care, counselling, peer education and communitybased support for families affected by HIV/AIDS have been pioneered and developed by Christian health programmes and other faith-based organisations in many African countries.

Religious faith can also play an important role in promoting safer sexual behaviour, and in motivating large numbers of volunteers involved in HIV/AIDS care, support and prevention activities. Moreover, the personal testimonies of many people living positively and productively with HIV reveal a deep reliance on inner spiritual resources for strength and willpower.

Yet by and large, the responses of faith-based organisations in general, and of churches in particular, towards the global HIV epidemic have generally lacked sufficient urgency and commitment. This is especially so in the field of HIV prevention, and in combatting the stigma, denial and discrimination that are often attached to HIV/AIDS. The main reason for this failure has been the association, in the collective mind of many members of faith communities, of HIV/AIDS with immoral sexual behaviour.

Many church leaders in Africa – and elsewhere in the world – regard HIV infection simply as the consequence of individual sin.

People already infected with HIV are exhorted, therefore, to repent of their sins and to pray for healing through faith. HIV prevention is reduced to a simplistic emphasis on returning to ‘traditional’ moral values and standards of sexual behaviour. Unfortunately, these judgemental attitudes have had the effect of reinforcing denial and secrecy on the part of people who know they are HIV-positive or believe themselves to be so. This, in turn, undermines efforts to mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS and to prevent its further spread.

In recent years, however, growing numbers of secular leaders at global and national levels, and among international agencies, have come to appreciate the unique potential which churches and other faith-based organisations have for preventing the spread of HIV and helping communities cope with the impact of the HIV epidemic. Growing numbers of religious leaders and institutions, especially at international level, have realized the urgency of exploring new ways of responding to the huge challenges of HIV/AIDS. Yet most faith-based organisations still lack the information, attitudes and skills, as well as the appropriate policies and strategies, for taking their rightful place in the global fight against the HIV epidemic.

This book documents the journeys which several church groups, organisations and individuals have made – and are still making – in their response to HIV/AIDS in three southern African countries: Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. It does not claim to be an exhaustive survey of the responses of churches and other faith-based organisations to HIV/AIDS in these three countries. Christianity is the predominant religion in southern Africa, but it is a relatively recent arrival on the African continent and other faiths also have many adherents. Traditional African religion is widely practised in southern Africa: many people belong to a church but still consult a diviner or other traditional healer in times of personal crisis or ill health. Islam also has many followers in this region, especially in the main urban areas of South Africa and in parts of Mozambique. Traditional healers, Islamic organisations and members of other faith communities have all responded in particular ways to the challenges of the HIV epidemic in southern Africa.

Journeys of Faith describes how church groups, organisations and individuals have mobilised themselves to take collective action in response to the HIV epidemic. In the course of their work they have encountered indifference, scepticism and outright opposition. Yet they have been sustained by their Christian faith and encouraged by the support they have received from many quarters, especially from people infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Their experiences are a rich source of inspiration and practical guidance for churches and other faithbased organisations looking for a ‘road map’ to translate their religious convictions into effective action against the HIV epidemic, and in support of people living with HIV and their families.

    * We define a 'faith community' as the people who belong to a particular religious faith or who espouse a set of similar spiritual beliefs.

    ** We define a 'faith based organisation' as an institution, association or group formed by people of the same religious affiliation. Within the Christian tradition (the focus of this book), faith-based organisations include - but are not limited to - churches and church-affiliated men's and women's organisations, youth groups and Sunday schools, as well as church-based non-governmental organisations, social welfare bodies, schools and health institutions, and both national and international church organisations and networks.

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