Once again, I’m blogging World AIDS Day and adding my voice to the Bloggers Unite campaign in support of persons living with HIV and AIDS across the world but especially here in Panama.
Recently, I sat with several members of the religious community here in Colon, Panama to finalize plans for an Ecumenical service of worship to mark World AIDS Day, Tuesday December 1, 2009. Our congregation, First Isthmian Baptist, will be the venue for the service in partnership with the NGO, Institute for the Development of Women and Children (IDEMI) and several other organizations. Youth from about 4 other provinces will meet in Colon, City for this service at which they will sign a Pact to end risky behaviour and “stay negative.”
The main focus of this service is to provide a setting for the signing of this covenant by youth. The service will be followed by a parade where several non-church related NGOs will be handing out condoms. The word “condom” and church leaders never seem to go down well, and of course the Roman Catholic church in Panama is its biggest opponent. Followed by the staunchest Evangelicals slowly taking over the religious landscape. The rigorous debate on the condom issue almost derailed the process.
But it was an eye opener for me.
Coming from Jamaica, and being among the earliest groups of religious leaders to be trained as Voluntary Counselling and Testing Providers has been an invaluable part of my last 2 years of ministry in Jamaica before leaving for Panama. My ignorance of the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS was drastically reduced with that training in 2005. I was now in a place to do more, and to lead a congregation to be compassionate toward persons living with HIV as we are all “living with HIV and AIDS” directly or indirectly. The many myths I had about AIDS have thankfully been eliminated!
Subsequent conversations with health workers including nurses in my congregation lifted up again the frightening reality of this global epidemic. In Latin America it is dubbed “the hidden crisis”. The shame, stigma and discrimination in these parts force persons to go underground. This is particularly so because of the overwhelming widespread belief and continued propaganda that it is mainly Gay men who have AIDS. This leads to further discrimination and quite understandably people hide rather than live with the stigma.
Campaigns for testing has met with disappointing results, as people seem not to want to know their status until it is too late. I had hoped that on an occasion such as this, it would be a perfect opportunity to have attendees at the service access testing. It made perfect sense to me that if you are going to join the youth in making a covenant to ‘stay negative’ that you should at least know your status. So today there will be no strategic points to encourage persons to get tested.
In addition, the critical Pre-test and Post-test counselling provided by certified Voluntary Counselling and Testing counsellors is practically non-existent in Colon City like the rest of Panama. None of the people I have spoken with who work in the Colon City health system for example have any idea what I am talking about. In addition, there is very little knowledge of or ability to explain the somewhat confusing Window Period.
I will never forget that it was through being trained and offering this service along with the Health Department in Trelawny, Jamaica that I met counselled and officiated at the wedding of a non-christian couple. While both were negative, the counselling session with a pastor who did not have hang-ups about talking them through an examination of their lifestyle without being condemnatory helped them to see the value of the role the church. They saw compassion instead of death warrants.
Our silence and distancing ourselves to keep the body of Christ holy and unpolluted only helps to perpetuate the shame, discrimination, isolation and suffering of those who are living with HIV and AIDS. This WAD even as the youth are signing their covenants at First Isthmian, I am making one too.
Mine is a renewed Covenant of Compassion to increase our contribution as church to the wider community and join with other like-minded congregations and individuals to make a greater effort to minister to persons HIV infected persons, and those with AIDS in Colon City. We must also take the lead especially among our women and youth to educate in order to help protect and save lives.
Download the WHO 2009 HIV-AIDS progress report