Christo Greyling is a tall man with a ready smile. He moves with the easy grace of an athlete and speaks with the soft lilt of his South African roots. Standing in front of a crowd or speaking one-to-one, Greyling conveys the impression he is deeply interested in the welfare, ideas and conversation of others. But, mostly it's that smile that lights up a room.
Christo Greyling is HIV-positive and has been since 1987, though he didn't announce that publicly until 1992. He describes those five years, between knowing and telling, as “long, slow and scary. Who can I tell? What if it will blow up in my face?”
Rev. Christo Greyling is a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. “I would never choose to be HIV-positive,” he says. “I was a minister!” When he finally did disclose his status to the church hierarchy, he was asked to procure a statement from his doctor proving he had contracted the virus through blood transfusion because of his hemophilia and not through sexual activity. “Guilty or innocent. That's what they wanted to know. My friends joke that I contracted HIV the easy way, by being innocent.
“Of course, that judgmental process is wrong, immoral and sinful.
“We are often the second son,” he continues, referring to the parable of the prodigal son. “We forget God is the God of compassion. We lose our compassion.”
Greyling has been married for 16 years and has two daughters. Neither his wife nor his girls are HIV-positive thanks to antiretroviral medication. And while that might prove AIDS is both manageable and preventable, being “positive” has changed Greyling's life. For the better part of the past two decades he has given his life to talking about the virus, the disease and the contributing factors that promote both, the greatest of which, to his mind, is stigma.
Stigma was the most commonly used word, the most commonly expressed idea, at the Ecumenical Pre-Conference at the XVI International AIDS Conference held in Toronto in August. The approximately 500 delegates, representing mostly Christian denominations across the planet, along with a handful of interfaith delegates, heard and traded stories of the devastation caused in their country, their churches and their communities by the human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. East met West, North met South; donors met recipients; front-line caregivers met heads of national and international faith bodies. There was some self-congratulation; the importance of faith and faith-based organizations was affirmed. But, squirming in amongst it all was inherent criticism of denominational and interfaith rivalry and of the barriers caused by the theology, practice and custom of churches.
The theme of the ecumenical conference was Faith in Action: Keeping the Promise. At the opening plenary, Sister Patricia Talone, vice-president of Mission Services of Catholic Health Association, said, “We stand at the intersection where the healthy meet the sick, where the young meet the old, where the rich meet the poor. This is not a comfortable place to stand.
“We may turn our back on God, but God never turns His back on us.” Talone quoted Leviticus 26 to affirm the covenant God has made. “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people.” She extended that relationship to the “covenant to the poor and vulnerable. Those who are poor and marginalized have first claim on us. This responsibility extends to those beyond our borders.”
And lurking within the spiritual reflection there is always the criticism: “Some have twisted theology to call AIDS the wages of sin,” Talone observed. These were the twinned themes from the opening salvo: Christians must keep the promise to God, to the sick and vulnerable and to do so they must revisit their own theological learning. “What we have received from God calls for responsibility,” she told the conference. “Our faith demands more of us. Our God demands more of us. Our sisters and brothers demand more of us. Our future demands more of us.”
Rev. Johannes Petrus Heath is an HIV-positive Anglican priest from South Africa. When he learned of his status in 2000 he told his bishop, who was sympathetic, but cautioned Heath to not tell his congregation for fear of backlash. “And so, from the outset,” Heath told Christian Aid, “my bishop and I were both victims of the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS.”
In 2002, Heath co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS, of which he is now general secretary. ANERELA+ started with eight members. It now has more than 1,500. (Greyling is vice-chair.) To keep pace with the demands of the organization, Heath is no longer in a parish.
“HIV/AIDS is simply a mirror to look closely at the way we look at the world,” Heath told the conference. “To come 25 years after this disease was first diagnosed and ask about the promise — the covenant with God — is an indication of how badly we have responded.
“HIV/AIDS is not the sin; it is stigma.
“We the faith community are called by God to be the caregivers. How is it that the body of Christ is so broken? How is it the church in the North can't feel the pain of the church in the South? I ask how is it the church in the South can't feel the pain of its own members?
“To keep the promise is to be the heart of God in the world.”
Andrena Ingram is convinced her husband died of stigma. For the six months prior to his death in 1993 he suffered the “stress of shame. His fear consumed him. Fear of being rejected. Fear of being looked at differently.” He had been drug-free for five years. It was only at his funeral in September that the truth came out to the family at large.
Even when she was diagnosed HIV-positive, she spent the first six months “waiting to die.” It was the same pattern, the same shame, the same fear. “I had to get over myself. I had to get proactive.”
Ingram was a delegate at both the Ecumenical Pre-Conference and the XVI AIDS Conference, sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (You can read her conference blog at notmyvirus.wordpress.com.) The former drug addict has been clean and sober — “in recovery” — for 18 years, the last three spent at a Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. Next year she will be, she hopes, awaiting a call.
On her blog she writes: “I am living with the HIV virus (and a few other pesky things that would love to keep me down). How did I contract it? Well, I know how, but the when's and by whom is kinda moot at this point. What is important is that I am living with it. Each year goes by, and I am still here.
“If God brings you to it, He can bring you through it!”
Ingram, 51, no longer suffers the shame of her past. She was who she was, she did what she did. “I am living with it, not dying of it.” She refuses to make the same mistake her husband did: she refuses to self-stigmatize, or to worry about the awkwardness others feel.
HIV/AIDS exposes the past — the wrong turns, the youthful decisions, the socially unacceptable behaviour. HIV/AIDS exposes one's life — sexuality, addictions, recreational choices. HIV/AIDS is caused by the exchange of bodily fluids, and bodily fluids are never discussed in polite company. They are never discussed from pulpits or at the dinner table; they are discussed disingenuously at cocktail parties.
World religions are not comfortable talking about sex — they preach that everybody should have one sexual partner in life, for life; and, though that may be true for some individuals, it simply isn't the case for many. (Never was.) The accusation of promiscuity rears. This is the stigma of sex.
Any discussion of HIV/AIDS goes into unsavoury corners, those dark little alleys of the world. Sex is about gender politics, which is about equity, which is about economics, which is about power; all of this is about justice; and justice is about Christ; or, more accurately, Christ is about justice.
Or he should be; but someplace in the process the discussion falls apart. Because any discussion of HIV/AIDS exposes life — we are all broken but we are unable to speak of this for fear we will be judged. Like Andrena's husband, people — and institutions — die in silence for fear of stigma.
Baruna Victor understands this well. When she first started her work with the Church of North India amongst villagers she could not speak openly about sex or sexuality. Through 10 years traveling to rural locales, speaking to illiterate women, she quickly overcame her shyness. “It is very difficult to talk about it, but I must. I cannot go into a village and ask them to tell me their problem if I do not speak openly.” By some estimates up to 80 per cent of Indians live in rural villages. “There are people in remote villages,” says Victor, “who do not know that Delhi exists, or Bombay or Calcutta. They cannot imagine going there.” These villagers are poor, illiterate, locked into their own cycle of survival, repeating rituals and traditions that have existed for generations.
The Banchara tribe in the central state of Madhya Pradesh (Bhopal is the capital) has long practiced what sociologists call traditional prostitution. First-born daughters are expected, at ages as young as 12, to become prostitutes. Their place of work may well be the family home; and, they can make up to $100US a day servicing half a dozen or more clients. “There are villages across the highways, along trucking routes. Thousands of trucks. The drivers are involved with these girls. We can't say it is just the sex workers; it is also the truck drivers. Everybody is at risk.” (In Africa, as in India, the spread of HIV/AIDS can be tracked across trucking routes.)
The Church of North India covers three-quarters of India, and has a large network of clinics and community workers, along with 60 hospitals. It provides nursing training and many other services. Presbyterian World Service and Development sponsors six of its projects. One of these is headed by this year's winner of the E. H. Johnson award, Karuna Roy, coordinator of the HIV/AIDS Program based in New Delhi. Victor works in Roy's program.
She gives the example of the Banchara tribe to give a sense of the multiplicity of issues surrounding any HIV/AIDS program. The tribe has a cultural history of prostitution and that is how they have survived for generations. They may be dying but to their uneducated eyes the killer is invisible and at least they are eating. “They say 'we can't say no to prostitution.' They live in extreme poverty.
“We have to walk with these women. If a pregnant lady is positive we have to prevent transmission to the child. These are typical rural Indian villages. We have to provide antenatal clinics, also post-natal.” Culture, tradition, gender, economics, survival, trade, power — the issues are multi-faceted.
It is not surprising that developed countries suffer less the ravages of HIV and AIDS than those known as developing. Canada has a prevalence rate of less than one per cent, while Lesotho's is almost a quarter of the population. Poverty is one of the major drivers of the pandemic, which was variously referred to during the conference as the worst in history and the scourge on the face of the planet. In parts of Africa, the urge to moralize has expedited the mortality rate.
South Africa's health minister does not believe HIV causes AIDS. At the closing of the conference, Stephen Lewis, UN ambassador to Africa for AIDS, lambasted South Africa as “the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state. It is the only country in Africa, among all the countries I have traversed in the last five years, whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment. The government has a lot to atone for. I'm of the opinion that they can never achieve redemption.”
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, South Africa's health minister, is unapologetic in continuing to promote what she refers to as “traditional cures”: garlic, beetroot and lemon. Her country currently has five million people living with HIV. Without proper health care, plus the scaling up of medical resources, including thousands of new nurses, the prevalence rates will continue to grow across the continent.
AIDS has been called the most political of diseases; it could just as easily be seen as a theological malaise. It entered North American consciousness as “the Gay Disease” and was quickly declared a judgment from God. When significant numbers of heterosexuals became infected it was seen as a judgment from God against promiscuity.
The Roman Catholic Church, which provides much on-the-ground caregiving around the world, and which has amongst the largest networks of health-care locations, refuses to endorse the use of condoms as a means to prevent infection, although at least three cardinals have said they can be used in certain circumstances. This is despite pleadings from many African bishops to change this ruling. The church's position is that every sexual encounter must be open to procreation — it can never be solely recreational, even for married couples. (Despite the official line, Roman Catholic workers said several times during the conferences that local bishops, priests and health-care workers frequently ignore the Vatican's declaration on this point.)
Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, another founding member of ANERELA+, was the first African Anglican priest to declare that he was HIV-positive. Byamugisha, who runs an HIV/AIDS clinic in Kampala, told the conference that for him condoms were a blessing: he could use them with his wife until medical science was able to provide them with the drugs to have children without passing the virus to either mother or child. He had to wait seven years. He was only one of two speakers at the Ecumenical Pre-Conference to hint he has had sex for other than procreation. The other was a pro-gay activist from New York City who openly declared that sex was fun. (Though both statements were applauded, there was no further chanting.)
Still, churches are trying to shake themselves free of biases regarding sex and sexuality. There was considerable conversation during the faith-based conference on the theological and biblical basis of care. At the end of one workshop, a Muslim delegate asked the obvious questions: what is so singly special about justifying compassion through the Bible; and, why work so hard to seek justifications for compassion when obviously it is the prime directive of all religions?
Calvin has been active in The Presbyterian Church in Canada his whole life. He has sat on session and been to General Assembly; his memories stretch back to PYPS and beyond. He's written letters to editor of the Presbyterian Record over the years. But, Calvin is not his real name — he is gay and he is HIV-positive.
Calvin tells many tales of disingenuity: of the man with gay sons who didn't believe homosexuals should be ministers. He tells tales of duplicity: of many gays and lesbians (like himself) who live a mostly-secret life within the church, but do not declare their sexuality openly for fear of backlash, of rejection. He tells tales of gays and lesbians who have done very well within the church, made great careers within the church, without once speaking of their sexuality. He also tells tales of “saints” who have known or sensed his sexuality and have provided him great pastoral guidance over the years. At the same time he recognizes they too have participated in the disingenuity and the duplicity.
Calvin knows exactly what will happen if he comes out in the church: the theory is called the Church of Thirds. A third will be deeply vexed and will confront him personally or the corporate body of the church through General Assembly; a third will not care either way; a third will make him and his sexuality a cause celebre. (The United Church of Canada lost tens of thousands of members, including many clergy, when it approved the ordination of homosexuals. Many of them joined the Presbyterian Church.)
But he is not a radical — his love for the church is greater than his desire to rock the boat. “It's a persistent quality,” he says, “to be forgiving of the errors of others. It's a spiritual strength. What would I gain by leaving? I would lose a whole life, and a lot of friends.”
But, while the church defines him in one way, his sexuality defines him in another. Through the 1990s when AIDS funerals were ubiquitous he was not able to take the loss of friends to his church. Calvin has been living with HIV for 12 years. “It's like going to war and coming back alive and not understanding why you still live while many others have died.” The pain and the guilt live with him constantly.
Calvin may have contracted the virus through a blood transfusion after an operation. Or through sexual activity. He's not sure and he won't say either way. Though he knows the difference between the two: it's the difference between innocence and guilt. He knows it is the difference between pastoral prayers from the pulpit bearing his name, and shunning; between pastoral visits from his fellows in the pews, and judgmental stares. He knows that if he had cancer, or some other condition that was not wrapped with sexuality and guilt, his name would be uttered openly in prayers.
Instead Calvin takes refuge in the handful who do know, who do provide pastoral care (these do not include his current minister), who do love him as a servant of Christ. He is old enough to have seen the world change — he remembers the debate over the ordination of women. He compares the debate surrounding human sexuality to the attitudes once held towards those who were left-handed.
At the end of Christo Greyling's workshop on stigma, Dr. Hubert Maquette, of Haiti, stood up and delivered a passionate denunciation of sin. Interviewed later he said, “If we do not talk about sin then we are no longer the church.”
Maquette gives the example of the woman who is to be stoned. Christ stops the stoning by challenging the gathered to judge their own guilt. That is, Christ says, we are all broken, and not one of us has the right to judge others. But then, as Maquette points out, Christ, in sending the woman away, tells her, “Go and sin no more.”
Sin, for Maquette, is at the heart of Christianity; and he acknowledges that this theological interpretation will cause a divide between the northern and the southern church.
Greyling for his part was not pleased with Maquette's outburst, but, ironically, it's the sort of thing that keeps him vigilant. For years he's been traveling the world holding sensitivity workshops on stigma. “Sometimes I think I've done my part but then doing workshops, I see the conversion in people and I realize my job isn't finished yet.”
'The Presbyterian Church in Canada is getting it,” says Karen Plater. Over the past two years the church's Towards A World Without AIDS project has exceeded expectations. First raised as a challenge by then-moderator Rev. Richard Fee, the campaign continues. “I have often been surprised by the unique and creative ways local churches are raising funds, and educating themselves about this crisis,” she said.
Plater is one of the hardest-working people in the church. As the resource and communications coordinator for PWS&D she is in contact with many local churches. She has traveled the world and witnessed the work of many partner agencies. She leads mission tours to these locations and was chair of the Christian Host Committee that helped organize the mostly Christian conference. She is an indispensable force within the church, having witnessed the pandemic from many different points of view.
“In the beginning we didn't want to talk about HIV/AIDS because we didn't want to talk about sex. But, I have seen church groups talk about sexuality, HIV, condoms.
“If HIV challenges us as a church to look at the way we look at marginalized people, how we look at anybody in society, if HIV/AIDS opens the door for the church in any way, if we combat everything we know that is associated with HIV/AIDS with compassion, then that is positive.”