Pastor Who is Fighting HIV From The Pulpit. 21/09/2015
Published at Nation.
Written by Dorothy Kweyu
19 September 2015
She’s a mother and an ordained minister, but that is not why I am awestruck when I am introduced to her by Rev Nyambura Njoroge of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
After all, women’s ordination has been around for a while — apart from the Catholic Church, which has maintained its absolute No stance against women priests.
So what is it about the South African cleric Phumzile Mabizela that would attract more than casual interest?
Rev Mabizela was recently in Kenya for a WCC consultation, where her mission included a public lecture at St Paul’s University on, “Sexuality, Spirituality and Sexual Violence: Politics of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Programme in the context of HIV”. That would have been bait enough to get me to Limuru, its inclement weather notwithstanding. However, the fact that Rev Mabizela is living with HIV, makes her story even more compelling.
Ugandan Anglican cleric Canon Gideon Byamugisha was the first religious leader to announce in 1992 that he was infected with the Aids-causing virus, demystifying the myth that clergy were immune to HIV. Ten years later, he co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and Aids.
Rev Mabizela is executive director of Inerela+, the international version of the organisation.
The South African is the epitome of defiance, starting with her huge physique that belies the stereotypical skeletal images of people living with HIV, a fact she jokes about.
On this particular day, she is wearing black as are other delegates to the consultation, complete with a badge emblazoned, “Thursdays in Black: Towards a world without rape and violence.”
While she says during her public lecture that “most women who were living with HIV were either pressurised (sic) into sexual relationships or they were victims of sexual violence”, she refuses to be drawn into disclosing how she might have got infected. The cleric tested HIV-positive in 1999, hence the question about the cause of her infection and her reaction.
She says: “I didn’t want to go down that road because it wasn’t going to help me at all. My main concern was, how do I manage the virus and how do I continue living positively? I was a single mother of two children. That was another issue I had to deal with. How do I tell my children? How do I tell my parents? How do I tell my close family?”
It did not help that she had worked with Youth Alive and Youth for Christ ministries, both of which promote Christian virtues of chastity. “I cried a lot. I was angry. I did a lot of introspection and reflection asking, why would God choose me? I was very angry with God.”
The cleric was going through what she describes as “self-stigma”— struggling to accept her status.
“The second issue is all the negative things that are said about people living with HIV. The assumption is that you’re promiscuous. With religious leaders, it’s even worse. ‘What business do you have getting HIV?’ because you are not supposed to be human. We are superhuman. These are the challenges we have to deal with,” she says.
She later reckoned that “there must be a reason why I ended up with HIV”. Rev Mabizela adds: “I’m beginning to understand it now because of the platforms I’ve been exposed to, which I don’t think I’d have had if I hadn’t chosen to be open, because it wasn’t easy to openly talk about HIV.”
Going public has helped her live a fulfilling life, “because I don’t have this fear of people finding out that I’m living with HIV. I live my life and I’m fully involved in my ministry and the people I work with know what my status is.”
Fulfilling, but also chequered, aptly describe the life of the widow, who was born Catholic, joined the Salvation Army and is now Presbyterian. The cleric previously worked for the Norwegian Church Aid as senior policy adviser on gender justice in Southern Africa and CEO of KwaZulu Natal Christian Council.
She was commissioned (ordained) in the Salvation Army in 1988. “It has been a long journey,” says the churchwoman, who describes herself as “very ecumenical”, having been exposed to the mainline churches, the pentecostals and the presbyterians.
Her older children are 30 and 25. She also has a 13-year-old daughter with the man she met and married in 2001 after she started living openly with HIV. The widow does not know whether or not her husband was HIV-positive.
“He didn’t know his status, but when I tell my story, I don’t talk about his status,” she says.
So, how easy or difficult was it for the Salvation Army to commission a single mother? The church did not know about her marital status, but gaining acceptance in her husband’s Presbyterian Church was a struggle. They were unsure about accepting her Salvation Army training although she had also studied theology at university, which she joined at the age of 31.
“When they combined the two, they decided that I could be accepted as a minister,” she says.
The cleric, who says she joined the Presbyterian Church to honour her husband, is aware that travelling all over the world and “saying the things that I do”— like championing the rights of unwed mothers and their children — does not sit well with her church.
She notes, however, that Inerela+ groups religious leaders in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their respective religions, which include Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
Inerela+ was founded in 2002 by eight religious leaders, including the Rev Mabizela. Its membership is about 10,000. The umbrella network started with Africans, “but when the global community learned about our core business, which is fighting against stigma and discrimination, they invited us. They said that we, as religious leaders, also need a support network like this. That is how it became international in 2008.”
Inerela+ has 15 country networks in Africa, including Kenya’s Kenerela. It envisages a world without new infections; with zero stigma and discrimination and with zero Aids-related deaths. The network seeks to empower religious leaders living with HIV by teaching them skills to open up discussions on HIV from a faith or religious perspective.
Their stories give people hope that it is possible to live positively for a long time and become ambassadors of change by keeping up-to-date on matters of policy and research. Because most of them have been on treatment for some time, they can support those starting treatment and are struggling with issues of side-effects, for instance.
“I think most people are under the impression that it (HIV and Aids) is no longer an issue. The reality is that it has become a silent pandemic because people are struggling with the side-effects and they find it difficult to adhere because treatment is a life-long commitment. Some, out of fatigue, just decide to stop taking drugs, and their lives deteriorate,” she says.
The second issue is that boys and men get tested very late, and by the time they start taking medication, either the body does not respond to it or they develop resistance.
She faults the global message that all is well; that everybody is on treatment now; and that we should move on to other issues.
“When you get closer to families and people who are affected, things are getting worse,” the cleric says.
She issues a terse warning against emerging complacency regarding the pandemic which could take the world back to “the (19)80s when people were dying like flies”.
The Inerela+ boss’s rallying call for the faith community is that they cannot afford to put their foot on the brakes as “the battle is not over”.
“There are still lots of people who cannot talk about it (HIV/Aids). There is also the issue of gender inequality, which makes women vulnerable,” she says, adding that non-compliance with medication is a big problem.
And then there are the side-effects of antiretrovirals (ARVs), which she has had to deal with, and describes as “a huge issue”— including depression. The solution sometimes includes taking anti-depressants or changing the medication.
Her advise is to understand the kind of medication instead of “suffering in silence, so that when you are constantly depressed and you don’t know what the problem is, it’s very easy to say, ‘this is not helping me’, and stop taking medication.”
Rev Mabizela describes it as “a constant journey of reflecting and investigating”.
And in an apparent call for humility on the part of medical doctors, the cleric points out that medics are not always as good as they think they are. “Some of us,” she says, “have to do the research ourselves and go to doctors and tell them, ‘this is what we’ve found out. This is how the medication affects us. What is the possibility of moving to another kind of medication?’ It’s quite a burden,” she says.
The cleric hurls a huge barb at the so-called faith-healers, who discourage people living with HIV from taking medication. She gives the example of some faithful, who go to various churches, only to be told, ‘Stop taking your medication because you are healed; we have prayed for you’. Others give the faith water or the faith oil or whatever else they have prayed for, she says.
“As a faith community, we have to take the issue (of faith-healing) seriously and challenge religious people who are telling people to stop taking their antiretroviral treatment. I believe that the ARVs are a gift from God,” she says.