World AIDS Day and the power of a biblical response

World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 is meant to remind people of those affected by the virus and the power of a biblical response.


World AIDS day is December 1, 2011. Today, more than 34 million people are HIV positive. | Ashley Jones/THE CHIMES

Lena Smith, Writer

Today, approximately 34 million people live with an incurable yet highly preventable virus that will break down their immune system until it is rendered utterly defenseless. Since its discovery in the 1980s, this virus has trampled ethnic, social, cultural and national barriers to infect and affect the globe. Human immunodeficiency virus is its name. As HIV matures in its carrier’s system, it lays the groundwork for the development of AIDS.

Since 1988, Dec. 1 has been recognized by the global community as World AIDS Day. It is a day for governments, organizations and communities to pause and reflect upon both the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. It is also a day for the church to stop and consider the Christian response to a disease that has been seen at times as a justified punishment for immorality.

When the virus was first discovered in the 1980s, HIV was viewed by many as a mysterious disease contracted by the sexually immoral. Years of scientific development and social advocacy has broadened public understanding of HIV/AIDS. In recent years, churches and faith-based organizations have grown to play an essential role in providing aid, both physically and spiritually, to those affected by the epidemic.

Power of a biblical response

Faustin Ntamushobora, a Rwandan Ph.D. student at Talbot School of Theology and founder of Transformational Leadership Africa, understands the power of a biblical response to HIV/AIDS in the lives of those suffering from the virus.

“The church has a message that gives hope to those who are dying from AIDS,” Ntamushobora said. “It is a message of eternal life after their momentary sufferings. I have personally ministered to those dying from the virus and I know how powerful the message of hope is for such precious people of God.”

Virus infects Sub-Saharan Africa more than other regions

While HIV has made an imprint upon the social fabric of every society, the region of Sub-Saharan Africa bears the deepest scars of the AIDS epidemic. A lack of education, delayed response to the disease in its early years and lack of adequate health care cultivated an environment that enabled HIV to spread freely until medical and social developments in recent years.

“From the 1980s to the time of the Rwandan genocide, I never heard the church leaders speaking of HIV/AIDS,” Ntamushobora said. “There were no statistics that could alarm us about the virus and the governments in Africa did not want to openly declare that HIV was a problem. That is why all of us were ignorant of how dangerous the virus had become.”

Bearing nearly 68 percent of the global HIV burden, approximately 22.5 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are HIV positive, according to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Women aged 15 to 24 make up the majority of these cases.

Recognizing HIV/AIDS as an issue

“HIV was recognized as an issue after the genocide in 1994 when people died of simple sicknesses,” Ntamushobora said.

Even then, there was no open platform to address the issue.

“Traditionally, HIV could not be discussed openly for two reasons,” Ntamushobora said. “First, it was believed that the virus was contracted only through sexual intercourse. Secondly, sex education was not done publicly among Rwandans. There was no room to discuss issues of HIV/AIDS.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, greater understanding of the spread of the virus and prevention efforts penetrated the barrier of stigma and silence. The church and Christian organizations also broke their silence and began to respond to the epidemic.

Faith-based organizations help equip leaders

According to the World Health Organization, 30 to 70 percent of Africa’s health infrastructure has been established by faith-based organizations.

Through Transformational Leadership Africa, an organization committed to equipping African leaders to bring about transformation in their communities, Ntamushobora seeks to equip leaders with the knowledge and resources necessary to address HIV/AIDS.

These leaders, who come from Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, engage in seminars addressing specific topics on HIV/AIDS and receive health and counseling education from nurses.

“If leaders do not understand [the virus], members will continue to be ignorant,” Ntamushobora said.

The training of these leaders has yielded promising developments in their respective communities.

“We have heard testimonies about youth who have changed their immoral behavior,” Ntamushobora said. “Pastors have taken a bold step to get tested so they can have the authority to advise others to get tested.”

Christian organizations ranging in size from World Vision to Ntamushobora’s Transformational Leadership Africa are working to respond effectively to HIV in a Christ-like manner. In the nearly 30 years that have passed since the discovery of the virus, the church has grown to address HIV/AIDS with compassion.

“While stigmas do persist, the western world has begun to see the epidemic through new eyes,” noted World Vision advocacy and campaigns fellow Lauren Seibert in “Rejecting the AIDS Stigma,” an article published on the organization’s website.

“By now, much of the Christian community has stopped ignoring AIDS as a morally ‘murky’ issue,” Seibert said.

As an African pastor and leader, Ntamushobora strives to exemplify the biblical response to the virus that has ravaged his homeland.

“Those who are being infected are our children, our relatives, our community,” Ntamushobora. “The role of the church is to bring God’s Kingdom into communities. Jesus preached salvation and healed diseases. The church should follow in the footsteps of her Master.”

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