Kenyan Pastors Meet to Discuss Response to HIV Epidemic

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Because Kenya has the fourth-largest HIV epidemic in the world, a group of pastors in the Central Kenya Conference of Seventh-day Adventists decided to hold a conference of their peers to ask the question, “If Jesus were here, how would He handle the situation?” Organizers found support from the Ushirika Medical Services and SDA Kinship International. Pastor Kamutu, the conference ministerial secretary, served as the master of ceremonies for the conference that was convened on February 28 to March 2, 2018. Approximately 200 pastors attended.

Pastor Kiragu, the executive director of the conference, opened the event with the question about what Jesus’ response would be. Then he pointed out that each attendee is either affected or infected by the disease. “We may not see the seriousness of the situation until someone in our own household is down with the illness,” he said. “It is high time that we start looking at HIV like any other disease. Some of those who are infected are already experiencing self-stigma. It is our duty as the servants of God to welcome them into God’s house and not block them by the entrance,” he said.

During the two days of meetings, as the multiple issues surrounding HIV were discussed, leaders emphasized that to reach the World Health Organization’s (WHO) goal of zero infections, church leaders and members should not be afraid to call a spade a spade and accept that it is also in the church. And that means issues like homosexuality and alcohol and drug use by church members need to be discussed.

Attendees heard about the epidemiological dynamics of HIV in respect to modes of transmission as well as age, sex, and geographic differentials. In the last four years, the prevalence of HIV has decreased from 7.2% to 6.0%, with approximately 100,000 new infections annually (KAIS, 2012). Sexual transmission accounts for 93.7% of the new infections. There are growing statistics on the number of persons engaging in same sex intercourse in Kenya — a country where same-sex activity is criminalized by the penal code and where there is widespread stigma and discrimination against those practicing it. Men who have sex with men are identified as a key population in Kenya’s HIV response framework, but LBQ women and transgender persons are not even included though their incidence rates are also high.

All LGBTI people face significant challenges in accessing health services due to stigma and discrimination and ignorance from health care providers about sexuality and gender variance. Generally speaking, the various churches in the country have no interest at all in what is going on because they look at these people as sinners. Central Kenya Conference looked at all these people and thought of a way of ministering to the marginalized with the spirit of Christ.

Seventh-day Adventist members are not left out when it comes to infections. There is great evidence of members of the church who are HIV positive or who are members of the LGBTI community — some of them pastors and children of pastors.

The WHO has recommended sustained focus on HIV research, policy, and advocacy for key populations in order to achieve the global goals of zero infections, zero discrimination, and zero deaths. Kenya has made milestones in the development of standards of care and health policy frameworks such as Kenya AIDS Strategic Framework, Kenya’s Fast Track Plan to End HIV and AIDS among adolescents and young people, and Kenya HIV Prevention Roadmap. The Roadmap proposes a shift from existing HIV programming approaches toward a population-location-risk approach to HIV investments where service delivery interventions at the county level will be guided by data and evidence-based interventions. However, despite the scale up of combined HIV interventions and products aimed at providing options for prevention, treatment, and care among targeted populations in Kenya, the uptake and use of these interventions has not always been successful for reasons that are not understood. The church wants to play a major role in global goals of zero infections, zero discrimination, and zero deaths.

While homosexuality is a delicate topic to handle, leaders acknowledged that there are gay members in the church and that heaven is for all people and all will be welcomed by God, the owner of heaven. In his presentation, Professor Ruben Mugerwa from Bugema University emphasised that in heaven’s record we are all HIV positive—all are sick and needing redemption—so we should not feel cleaner or holier than others. To Jesus, the prostitute who came to him is the same as a pastor who might be preaching in a church.

Addressing the verses in the Bible that have seemingly been superseded by science, Professor Mugerwa referenced the building of the tower of Babel. Knowing the brick makers would run out of oxygen if they left Earth’s atmosphere, would God really have been afraid they were going to reach Him? Where does God stay? Mugerwa said scriptures were written in the context of that time and culture. He advised that we need to read the Bible in a wider context and not shallowly.

In his final appeal, he urged all present to read Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives to learn more. He also suggested just using Google to find other resources that would provide more information about homosexuality. He said, “Let’s not be caught off guard later as many were caught during the beginning of HIV/AIDS epidemic. Homosexuality is here and here to stay until Jesus comes. Our job is to treat others the way Jesus would have treated them.”

During group discussions, the following suggestions were made:

  1. Pastors need to be examples and be the first to be tested for HIV.
  2. More counselling and testing sessions should be encouraged by the church.
  3. More workshops need to be given because many know nothing about homosexuality and generally how it is connected to HIV/AIDS.
  4. A special ministry needs to be created that can care for these marginalized groups.
  5. A follow-up meeting needs to be held with conference heads of departments.

 

Rena Alberta Otieno is the founder of Rainy Summer, the first lesbian organization in the Western Kenya region, and has been the Kenyan coordinator for Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International for over ten years.

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