A pastor in Lesotho urges his congregation to get tested for HIV infection. A Nigerian activist has counseled Roman Catholic priests with AIDS. An Anglican minister who is HIV positive speaks of how the pandemic in Africa may help reclaim Christianity’s spirit of compassion.
Stories emerging at a global conference on Christian mission highlight a critical intersection of faith and crisis: the ravages of AIDS in Africa and how it may reshape religious views and practices on the continent where Christianity is growing fastest.
The relentless spread of AIDS in Africa already has forced many churches to grapple with sensitive subjects of sexuality and death among the young and put Roman Catholics at odds with officials over the Vatican’s opposition to condoms. But some pastors and scholars believe the coming decades could push churches in Africa to reorder basic theology — placing social assistance and health care ahead of traditional preaching and evangelism.
Birth of a new faith movement?
Such a shift, some religious leaders say, could promote more cooperation between Catholic and Protestant denominations and stir a new movement in the faith, as the 1970s growth of Catholic “liberation theology” in Latin America focused on social and economic inequalities.
“We have pastors who are spending more time burying members of their congregation than ministering to them,” said Jacinta Maingi, who runs an HIV/AIDS program supported by the Geneva-based World Council of Church, which has brought together more than 700 Christian leaders, theologians and others from around the world to examine challenges facing Christianity.
“I tell them, 'If you don’t get involved today, you won’t have a congregation tomorrow.”’
The conference, which ends Monday, has touched on dozens of issues — from declining religious participation in the West to the rise of radical Islam. But none carry the urgency of the appeals to seriously confront the AIDS dilemma in Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than 60 percent of the 40 million people infected with HIV worldwide. In March, a U.N. study predicted more than 80 million Africans may die from AIDS by 2025 and infections could soar to 90 million — or more than 10 percent of the continent’s population — if more isn’t done to expand prevention programs and offer better access to drugs that can control the virus.
“There are deep theological questions, but it also touches on socio-economic questions and on women and children and the family,” said Tinyiko Maluleke, a University of South Africa professor who studies religious trends. “Churches are struggling with this.”
Maingi urged an “AIDS theology” that allows sufferers to remain within the fold of the faith.
“We have too many pastors who think: AIDS equals sex equals immorality equals death equals hell,” she said. “But I ask them, ‘Isn’t the whole role of churches to prevent people from going to hell?”’
Maingi conducts seminars around Africa with evangelical groups and mainline Protestants. Last year, she said she counseled several Roman Catholic priests in Kenya who had advanced HIV infection. It led to a closed-door meeting, approved by Kenya’s top Catholic clerics, of more than 100 priests and nuns to discuss the impact of the disease on congregations and the church leadership.
“That was a breakthrough,” said Maingi, who hopes to hold similar meetings with Roman Catholics in other countries.
The Vatican opposes the use of condoms, which can block the spread of AIDS, but even some top prelates have raised questions about whether it’s more “sinful” to transmit the virus than protect sexual partners. Catholics account for nearly a third of Africa’s 400 million Christians and nearly every denomination has reported dramatic growth in recent decades.
The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, told the conference Christianity’s demographic “center of gravity” has drifted from Europe to northern Africa.
Removing the stigma
Conference participants, however, described their main challenge as altering Christian outlooks: removing the stigma of AIDS as a disease that often leaves sufferers estranged from the faith and their communities.
“Diseases such as AIDS today, or leprosy in earlier times, push those suffering to the margins of society,” Greek theologian Athanasios Papathanasiou, told the conference.
In the southern African nation of Lesotho, a church has tried to encourage the entire congregation to take tests for HIV infection. The message, said Alina Mosebo Chabane of the Lesotho Evangelical Church, is twofold: halt the spread of AIDS and unite the followers.
“What other response can Christians have?” she asked. “Can we turn away people who are suffering and dying? Whoever does this and claims to be a Christian is a fraud.”
But cries of religious condemnation against AIDS sufferers in Africa are still widespread.
“Messages like ‘AIDS is God’s punishment for sin,’ are still very much present,” said the Rev. Johannes Petrus Heath, a South African-based Anglican who operates a confidential network for African religious leaders infected by HIV.
Nearly 700 clerics — mostly Christians, but including Muslims and other traditions — take part in meetings around the continent. Some, like Heath, openly acknowledge their HIV infections. But no one is forced to disclose health status, he said.
The AIDS crisis, Heath believes, contains opportunity amid the tragedy.
“Our Gospel and the teachings of Jesus are teachings of holistic inclusion. But (the faith) has had 2,000 years of perfecting the doctrine of exclusion,” he said. “We hope to use AIDS and HIV to bring back that core of inclusion to Christianity.”