Churches urged to become more involved in HIV fight

Churches urged to become more involved in HIV fight

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, December 05, 2019

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THE Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) is encouraging its members to become more engaged in the fight against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), by educating their respective congregations on how to manage their lives and minimise the risk of infection.

Speaking with the Jamaica Observer ahead of the December 1 observance of World AIDS Day recently, JCC General Secretary Reverend Gary Harriott said, while the church has done a lot in the area, there is still much work to be done.

“In Jamaica, we're not where we need to be, but people are becoming more aware. We still have a way to go because we still have a lot of people who are ignorant on the matter. More is needed,” Harriott said.

Harriott's comments came ahead of JCC's launch of the Voluntary Testing and Counselling Manual and Workbook and The HIV-related Stigma and Discrimination and Gender-based Violence Reduction Project. Both initiatives are dubbed a faith-based response to HIV and AIDS, and are supported by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

Harriott pointed out that though more work is needed, there are advances, through training and partnerships with AHF, The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Theological College of the West Indies, to mobilise congregations to be able to demonstrate the policies within their church bodies.

In 2017, AHF allocated approximately $20 million to JCC to build capacity, over five years, as part of a proactive and coordinated response to HIV. A year later, JCC and the health ministry signed a Religious Leaders Healthy Living Policy Statement and Agreement. The policy was lauded as a landmark bid for moral leadership by those who should be the guardians of the nations' values and character.

There is also a general policy guideline for churches and other religious groups to establish their own policies. But, according to Harriott, some are yet to do so.

“It is a general statement and the vision is that religious groups will now take the statement and then establish their own policies. We know some already have policies in some church groups and other faith groups. However, some are still yet to develop their own policies, and so we are encouraging them to do that,” he said.

Harriott added that the partnerships and training sessions have been primarily set around the area of stigma reduction in faith-based communities, and increasing sensitisation among religious leaders.

“We have done quite a bit of work in training religious leaders, not just Christians but people from other religions in terms of establishing policies to guide their work. We did a mapping exercise across Jamaica. We knew religious communities were responding to HIV, but we never had any scientific data. We did a follow-up mapping exercise because that mapping revealed there was a gap in policy, there was gap in leadership development, preparing and sensitising religious leaders to have a faith-ideal response, so that became the focus of our work,” he continued.

But, a present area of contention among churches in the fight against HIV is the stigmatising notion that HIV is a gay disease, and the churches do not condone homosexual behaviour.

In responding, Harriott said, while churches have a strong stance against same-sex relations, he expects that they would still exercise some form of pastoral care to certain individuals.

“We have to encourage persons and, in my mind, you don't need to highlight people's behaviour, but in the church space you don't know who's in the congregation, you don't know all the things persons are involved with, but you try to provide a message that everybody, hopefully, can take something away from,” he said.

Further, the JCC general secretary said, as part of the faith-based response to HIV and AIDS, there is much concern for married women who are at risk.

“Many of them are in churches. They may not be the ones who are having relationships that put them at risk, in terms of going out, but then they have partners who are. In the church, we don't have to itemise or highlight any particular group of people, but you provide the general information and education so that people can access it in response to their need,” he said.

Harriott also called for more urgency around the issue from all influential sectors of society, including the church.

“What has happened globally is that there was a time HIV/AIDS was a big talk. It was on the lips of everybody and it's almost a lull now. That lull is contributing to the increase in infections and Jamaica is suffering from that, too.

“We're hoping that will be transmitted in the life of the congregation, how you treat with people — people who are positive — and how you encourage people to do their tests,” Harriott said.

He added: “We ask our churches to include HIV testing at their health fairs because the sooner people know their status, the sooner they can go on medication. Also the science says the earlier you're on medication, then it is more likely your viral load will become sufficiently suppressed that you are not likely to infect other persons. So it is in our interests to join the fight and encourage people to get tested and get treatment where needs be.”

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