HIV-AIDS is a challenge to the church's witness

By Jane Stranz
6 Jun 2010

“Almost every family in Zambia is affected by HIV,” says Sarah Kaulule. She is a lay preacher in the United Church of Zambia, and I interviewed her at the Edinburgh 2010 conference on world Christianity (2-6 June), where she had come as a delegate.

“We say, you are either affected or infected. There is a lot of work to do for the mission of the church,” says Kaulule, who serves as one of the five vice-moderators of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission - the body that looks at how the teachings and traditions of the different communions and denominations might talk to one another on the path to unity.

To discover what it means to witness to Christ today in this context, the United Church of Zambia has an annual HIV and AIDS Awareness Sunday. On that occasion, local congregations work to identify people in need and encourage testing and counselling - direct and material help.

“We hope that the spiritual dimension of our ministry can also help long-term to prevent the spread of the disease,” says Ms Kaulule.

She identifies additional challenges for Christian work in Zambia, such as the way society segregates the roles of women and men, and the dramatic differences between the urban and rural populations. Being true to the Christian calling requires breaking through these cultural barriers.

Kaulule says that Zambians still think of their country as a Christian nation and that the church is growing strongly there. Yet this involves its own challenges as rapid growth brings a need for more full-time church workers and requires an investment of time and precious resources to train ministers.

Describing her impressions of the conference, the preparatory process and published material for Edinburgh 2010, Kaulule is upbeat: “It gives me confidence that we can fit in and coexist with our differences. We can understand one another and move together in our faith. I really thank God that I have been part of this.”

The Edinburgh 2010 Conference commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the landmark 1910 World Mission Conference which took place in the same city. Some 300 delegates from over 60 countries and virtually all Christian traditions are attending the event, which aims at inspiring new perspectives on Christian mission - words, actions and example that expresses the Christian hope - for the 21st century.

Kaulule affirms that she felt fully included in the process but notes that delegates from the global South were underrepresented compared to those from the North, because of the relative financial vulnerability of many churches in those regions.

“We need to speak out much more,” she says. “The presentations from the South have been very frank about what is expected from our relationships of being 'one in Christ'. We need to be more assertive.”

Looking to the future, Kaulule hopes the World Council of Churches (WCC) as a whole will take up the issues coming out of Edinburgh 2010. She expects the WCC to embrace the challenge of holding the different dimensions of Christian witness, presence and engagement together.

Ms Kaulule encourages the churches in the ecumenical movement to move forward in mission with a spirit of humility but also with confidence, learning lessons from one another. She adds, “It is my prayer that in 100 years’ time, there will be many more representatives from Africa – and that the celebrations and fellowship may even take place there.”

Meanwhile, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, a global coalition, http://www.e-alliance.ch/en/s/hiv-and-aids/ runs a campaign on HIV-AIDS. It is based on the knowledge that all churches are affected and that people who live with HIV and die with AIDS are friends and family, teachers and neighbours, pastors and priests.

The pandemic continues to be measured in alarming statistics around the globe, says the Alliance, and churches and people of faith everywhere must take up their pastoral and prophetic role to overcome stigma and discrimination, to care for body and spirit, and to advocate for universal treatment and effective forms of prevention.

The campaign "Live the Promise", holds individuals, religious leaders, faith organisations, governments and intergovernmental organisations accountable for the commitments they have made and advocates for further efforts and resources to respond to HIV and AIDS.

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(c) Jane Stranz coordinates the World Council of Churches' language and translation service from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. She is also a pastor of the Reformed Church of France and a minister of the United Reformed Church in Britain. Her personal blog, 'Of life, laughter and liturgy' can be found here: http://stranzblog.blogspot.com/

Also from Ekklesia

Church responses to HIV-AIDS: http://ekklesia.co.uk/tags/3541

The Good Fight: Religious prejudice has hampered HIV prevention and treatment around the world, but faith groups are also a key part of the solution - Simon Barrow, Guardian CIF: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/dec/04/thegoodfight

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