Editor’s Note: The Rev. Donald E. Messer traveled to Rwanda July 16-22 to speak at a workshop for United Methodist pastors on HIV and AIDS counseling. He also conducted interviews and met Rwandan pastors and laity on behalf of the Office of Christian Unity and Interrreligious Relationships of The United Methodist Church.
No one living with HIV was willing to speak at the AIDS workshop in Kigali, Rwanda, for United Methodist pastors.
That’s how pervasive the stigma and discrimination is against those with the disease.
But on that day last July, Katrina — a middle-aged HIV positive woman from a rural church two hours away — offered to speak privately to me, a representative of the international United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.
She feared sharing her story publicly, however, lest word of her status become the subject of shame and gossip.
Walking with her head down, seeking not to draw attention, she chose to sit near the back. While the pastors were listening to lectures, the Rev. Marc Baliyanga, Kigali district superintendent and legal representative of The United Methodist Church in Rwanda, arranged for us to slip away to a distant private room.
Looking at the floor, Katrina began to tell the story of how she had been infected with HIV by her husband, who then deserted her and their two elementary-age daughters.
Destitute, she struggles for survival, begging for food and clothing from other family members. The government provides her anti-retroviral medicine, but without regular food the powerful medicine is hard to digest, resulting in painful side-effects.
Above all, she is embarrassed by what neighbors routinely say about people infected and affected by HIV. Even in church, she believes people would look down on her if they knew her health status.
Stigma and isolation
Katrina’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. Women comprise nearly half of the 35 million people infected worldwide; in sub-Saharan Africa that number is 58 percent. Though many are infected by their husbands, the women bear the blame and often suffer stigma, isolation and extreme poverty. Many are forced to engage in "survival sex," or what we typically call prostitution. Violence against women is prevalent.
When I asked Katrina how she thought she could become self-supporting, she said she wanted to sell used clothing in the market place. Getting started would take about $200, but in a country where poor people usually earn less than $2 a day this was an impossible dream.
Then, we told her we could help her dream become a reality, thanks to gifts from United Methodists with the Center for the Church and Global AIDS. Her head jerked up in shock and surprise and she began to cry in gratitude. After a minute or two of prayer, however, it became clear Katrina had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit; hope had replaced despair and her faith had overcome fear.
When she walked back to the conference, she held her head high and there was a bounce to her step. It was as if I had witnessed the Gospel lesson in which the woman stooped over for 18 years had approached Jesus to ask for help and he declared she was healed. "Immediately, she stood up straight and began praising God." (Luke 13:13 NRSV)
In Katrina's case, she is not healed. She continues to live with HIV since there is neither a cure nor vaccine for HIV and AIDS. But because of a small economic empowerment grant, she is now an entrepeneuer, gainfully employed.
"Katrina has a renewed sense of self-worth and is able to feed her family. She is speaking out and active in the church,” reported Baliyanga, the district superintendent. “Unfortunately, hundreds of persons live in the shadow of shame within our churches and we lack financial resources to help them."
Growing and caring
Due to financial concerns over financial mismanagement in the Uganda offices of The United Methodist Church in East Africa, the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency, has restricted funds for evangelical, educational and mission work in Rwanda since 2012.
Despite that disconnection from the larger church, United Methodism in Rwanda continues to grow in members and seeks to serve the community. Still recovering from the devastating consequences of the genocide just 20 years ago — when some 800,000 Rwandans were massacred — every church is asked by the government to contribute to the well-being of the society by submitting plans of action.
Those who joined the church after the genocide were mostly poor. They were people who had fled from persecution and the mayhem of death. The church welcomed multitudes of widows and orphans. Many lacked education and suffered from hunger, AIDS, malaria and other diseases of poverty. The denomination’s Wesleyan theology, especially its focus of ministry with the poor, has proved attractive, especially to young people.
For Rwandan United Methodists, caring for people with AIDS and malaria remains a priority, although they receive no funds from the denomination to help with either disease.
I preached in Katrina's church two days after we met, to nearly 700 people crammed into the tiny tin shack-like building held up by wooden poles. Children were everywhere. Sunlight streamed through open cracks in the ceiling. During the five-hour worship service, people listened attentively to scripture and sermons, regularly came forward to offer gifts during various offerings, sang with unrestrained joy and danced in praise.
When Katrina emerged from the back of the sanctuary to join the choir and then reached out her hand, inviting me to join in a dance of celebration, it was an unforgettable moment. As tears streamed down my face, I was touched by the power of the Holy Spirit and remembered anew that United Methodism, at its best, can be defined as "love in action."
*Messer, executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, Centennial, Colorado, also is co-chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.