Churchmen Move Towards Disclosing Their HIV-Positive Status

Durban, South Africa - Religious leaders in South Africa are slowly beginning to address HIV/AIDS in their communities, but many are still struggling to come to terms with their own HIV-positive status.

In a country where an estimated five million people are HIV-positive, three members of the clergy are hoping their public disclosure will help people become more tolerant of those living with HIV/AIDS.

Mandla Mdabe, a Methodist lay preacher in Umlazi township near Durban, began to suspect he might be living with the virus after his girlfriend died of an unspecified illness in 2003. Last year his HIV-positive status was confirmed.

Although he considered himself generally well-informed about HIV/AIDS, Mdabe lived in denial for almost a year until he attended a workshop on adherence to antiretrovirals (ARVs). "I realised that you can't dodge the issue; that it's better to face it before it's too late," he told PlusNews.

Nevertheless, he was still reluctant to talk openly about his condition to members of his congregation in a small community in rural Zululand. Mdabe then decided to move to Durban, where he became a trainer for the national health department's adherence support programme.

When he began publicly disclosing his status, health workers would often respond with disbelief and shock. "People still believe that [people living with HIV/AIDS] must be thin and sick-looking - it shows you what a long way we still have to go," he remarked.

Mdabe suggested that knowing one's HIV status was much more important than disclosing it, and that HIV-positive people should carefully consider whom to tell. "Disclosure should always be attached to support - either to giving or receiving it," he recommended.

Rev Christo Greyling also left his church community soon after he went public about his status, because the congregation requested a statement from his doctor proving that he had not been infected through sexual intercourse but had got the virus "innocently".

However, he said the situation had improved and over the years he had received a lot of support from his community.

He now works as an advisor to HIV/AIDS partners of the Christian aid organisation, WorldVision, helping churches in Africa implement HIV/AIDS-related policies and programmes. "Church leaders need to integrate AIDS in everything they do and mobilise their congregations," he stressed.

Greyling is also part of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (ANARELA), which provides support to faith-based organisations.

ANARELA, founded in 2002 in Mukono, Uganda, by Canon Gideon Byamugisha, was a crucial support network, Greyling noted, because many priests "have nowhere else to go". The group has 17 HIV-positive members and about 40 who are directly affected by the pandemic.

Another member, Johannesburg-based Anglican minister Jape Heath, admitted he had been concerned about disclosing to the church and afraid of losing his job. Contrary to his fears, his bishop reacted positively and even thanked Heath for trusting him. Together they made a plan to prepare the congregation for his disclosure.

Heath, then rector of Christ Church in the Johannesburg suburb of Mayfair, started teaching the congregation about HIV/AIDS and gave them messages of inclusion. When he finally told them about his status, both church wardens stood by his side to demonstrate their full support.

"To my parish's credit, every single person in church made a point of greeting me at the door that Sunday and assuring me of their love and support," he remembered. "It is a day I will never forget - I have seldom felt as affirmed in my life."