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HIV Stigma Lingers as Churches Battle Epidemic

HWANGE, Zimbabwe | The Rev. Thabani Ndlovu knew the words wouldn’t come easy. So he practiced: “I’m HIV positive,” he would tell himself. “I’m a pastor and I’m HIV positive.”

On the day he worked up the nerve to say it out loud to his congregation, the backlash was almost immediate.

“Some of them were discriminating me, stigmatizing me. Some even chased the people from the church,” he said. “They were telling me, ‘If you are HIV-positive, we don’t want to worship with you. We don’t want to fellowship with you.'”

Ndlovu still preaches in that same weather-beaten building on the outskirts of town, telling anyone who will listen that he’s “positive that I am positive” — or in other words, physically strong despite the disease and living a Christian lifestyle with his HIV-positive wife and son. He knows “stigma and discrimination” can be hard things to overcome in a nation where the virus is still so closely associated with “sinful behavior” like extramarital sex, drugs and homosexuality.

“But churches for too long have been looking at this thing as an evil thing,” said Ndlovu, who doesn’t know how he contracted the virus. “People can be good Christians and still be HIV-positive.”

When the Rev. Thabani Ndlovu told his congregation that he’s HIV-positive, the backlash was almost immediate. Hear him tell part of the story in the video above.

Churches, he said, “have been acting but they must do more — be even more open — if we are going to stop this.”

It’s been said before. In fact, the Zimbabwean government came to a similar conclusion at a much earlier phase in the Christian community’s relationship with the disease — in large part due to two statistics. Around 1997, when the epidemic was hitting its peak in Zimbabwe, it was estimated that a full 29 percent of adults were infected with HIV. And with 80 percent of the nation identifying as Christian, few institutions had the moral authority to wield such influence on the topic.

Wield it they did. When the churches — along with other sectors of the society, including schools, media, industry, and others — were asked “to do more,” as Ndlovu put it, many simply amplified the messages they had been preaching all along.

“The churches are very strong on marriages and they are very strong on families, especially with the idea of ‘Be Faithful to Your Spouse,’ ‘Be Faithful to Your Partner,'” said Dr. Gerald Gwinji, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare. “So they were quite effective at stepping up and helping us push that message out when it comes to HIV.”

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Apostolic Faith churches, to name just a few, mobilized resources to help prevent and treat the disease. From the pulpit, many hammered home the ABCs of HIV prevention: Abstain from sex until marriage, Be faithful to your spouse, and when all else fails, some churches said, use a Condom.

The message was “critical, especially at the community level,” said  Perry Mwangala, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria’s senior portfolio manager for Zimbabwe. And for that reason, he said, faith-based groups have been particularly effective partners in their HIV prevention, testing and counseling efforts.

Today, no one’s quite sure which sector to thank, but the HIV rate in Zimbabwe has fallen 50 percent by some estimates, now clocking in around 15 percent of the general population. Many scholars call the decline “remarkable” given the massive social, economic and political upheaval taking place in the nation during the same period.

Part of that drop is due to HIV-positive residents dying of AIDS or moving to other countries, said Dr. Regis Choto, the deputy national coordinator for the nation’s antiretroviral treatment program. “But the major, major cause of that decline, we attribute to behavior change.”

Still, while many church leaders are proud of their role in encouraging such widespread behavior change, there’s a building realization that a second church-led movement needs to take place to help reduce the stigma. In recent years, training sessions have been conducted throughout Zimbabwe to help pastors think about how to better communicate with their HIV-positive members. And according to Rangarirai Chiteure, the coordinator for Global Fund-supported programs within Zimbabwe, the question is often asked point-blank: Is it a sin to be HIV-positive?

“Often in these meetings they come to the conclusion that it is not a sin,” Chiteure said. “It’s just like any other illness. Because once you call it a sin, you are already discriminating against the person who is HIV-positive. And once you discriminate, it is very hard to help them grow spiritually.”

Ndlovu, the HIV-positive pastor in Hwange, hopes more faith leaders will join him soon in that message soon. Preaching behavior change alone isn’t enough to return Zimbabwe to full health, he said. Those who contract HIV also need to know that they won’t always face a wall of discrimination; and they need role models to demonstrate that there can be a future even with the disease.

“My life alone speaks louder than what I can say,” Ndlovu said. “Everyone knows that I have HIV. And everyone sees that I am healthy — they see me living.”

WASHINGTON | At Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church on Rhode Island Avenue, Bishop Alfred Owens saw his congregation dying.

The year was 1987 and it seemed inconceivable that healthy young black men could be dropping dead so suddenly. “Because the plague — as we called it at that time — infected mainly white males,” he said.

Andre Scott was the first to work up the gumption to tell his pastor that he was infected, and Owens remembers his mind going blank. “I didn’t know if it was a form of cancer or what it was. I was ignorant to it,” he said. Scott gave him the basics.

“And well, we prayed for these persons and they ended up dying,” he said. “And I wanted to know why. So we were on the cutting edge of getting something done about it. And our first step was to educate the congregation.”

In the video below, Bishop Owens describes Calvary’s evolving reaction to the new disease:

Across town at First Baptist Church on Randolph Street Northwest, the Rev. Frank Tucker remembers the increasing paralysis that crept over the city as the disease made its way further into black congregations.

“Many didn’t know how to handle it,” he said. “Of course, it was a disease that was really misunderstood and people tried to stand off from it.”

In his ministry over the years, Tucker has traveled extensively to other places ravaged by the disease: Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland. And the United States has been “no different in its evolution on this,” he said. The periods of fear and denial gave way to greater clarity “that this is what Jesus was about. He was a healer. He was concerned for the leper, the sick, the withered hand, those who were in distress,” he said.

Today, Tucker leads a coalition called the Black Leadership Commission on HIV and AIDS. The group brings together church leadership from approximately 90 D.C.-area churches to encourage testing, promote awareness and advocate for the needs of people living with the virus throughout the metropolitan area.

But the group’s greatest challenge is convincing church leadership to be more open about the problem and to fight harder to reduce ignorance and stigma. Because while nearly every faith community in the city now has some form of HIV ministry, he said, a dark shadow still lingers over the disease, discouraging many congregants from being tested.

He’s hoping to see more scenes like the one that played out at Berean Baptist Church on a recent blue-sky Sunday in northeast D.C.

As the preacher finished his sermon and the choir belted one last song, Terry Hawkins and a group of certified HIV testers from Calvary Health Care Inc., waited in a mobile van outside.

The team travels to hundreds of events throughout the city each year looking for anyone interested in a 20-minute HIV test. Sometimes they don’t get a single taker.

But this particular Sunday, the first woman out of church marched right up to the van.

“How do I get tested?” she asked, as a small line built behind her. “Pastor said this is important. So let’s go.”

This series continues with a look at how the District of Columbia’s fight against HIV compares with Zimbabwe’s on two additional fronts: AIDS orphans and HIV/AIDS in correctional facilities. Jason Kane traveled to Zimbabwe with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Paula Rogo and Victoria Fleischer helped with the video from Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Zimbabwe and the District of Columbia. They’re 8,000 miles apart and nearly as distant economically. But the two share at least two things in common: Both have some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. And in both places, ordinary people face remarkably similar challenges. As Washington prepares to host the International AIDS Conference July 22-27, the PBS NewsHour will offer snapshots of some of the parallel stories unfolding around the epidemic on opposite ends of the globe. We continue our series with a look at how Christian churches in Zimbabwe and D.C. are helping redefine the HIV conversation.