In Africa, where up to 40 percent of the health care facilities are provided by faith-based organizations, Dr. Mirfin Mpundu, executive director of the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (EPN), says that due to their unique position churches can play a special role in eliminating HIV and AIDS and bringing improvements in the lives of people living with the virus.

Mpundu shared these views in an interview on Nov. 14. The EPN, based in Kenya, works closely with the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), a project of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Calling the church an “influential institution,” Mpundu said the “churches are strategically well positioned to tackle the HIV and AIDS pandemic. They can do this by accepting the people living with HIV and AIDS in communities, promoting the use of medication and caring for orphans, widows and widowers who have lost family members due to HIV and AIDS.”

Mpundu comes from Zambia and has long experience of working in the field of health care, especially in the area of HIV and AIDS. He calls “compassionate ministry” a privilege of the churches. “Church involvement in mitigating HIV and AIDS impact is a mandate given to the church from God. Churches can provide support for people living with HIV and can help communities to create opportunities for reflection and compassion,” he said.

Speaking of the African region, where HIV has a high prevalence rate, Mpundu said churches can bring change at the grassroots level. “The church being an advocate for high moral principles can bring behavioral changes necessary in dealing with the HIV and AIDS. Since churches command trust and respect from a society, they are well positioned to transform behaviors,” Mpundu said.

“HIV and AIDS is not just a health issue. It has economic, social and spiritual dimensions. And the church has the capability to affectively deal with these dimensions,” he said.

Speaking about Kenya, Mpundu shared that a number of churches have developed policies to guide their HIV and AIDS response. They have committed their resources and are supporting people living with the virus. According to the UNAIDS estimate in 2013, the number of people living with HIV in Kenya is 1,600,000 and the number of deaths due to AIDS is 58,000.

Providing care and support

Christian hospitals are offering treatment and have established homes for children orphaned by HIV. And several church leaders are involved in anti-stigma messaging, reported Mpundu. In 2012, he said, faith leaders developed the Kenya National Action plan to guide the HIV response. This is when faith based organizations such as EHAIA, EPN, Organization of African Instituted Churches and International Network of Religious Leaders living with AIDS (INERELA+) became engaged.

Theological literature on HIV and AIDS produced by EHAIA has been used by churches in Kenya and West Africa in the last ten years, said Mpundu. A number of church leaders have been trained by the EHAIA staff, while several theological institutions in Central Africa have incorporated HIV into their curricula as promoted by EHAIA, he added.

Mpundu shared that the EHAIA supported initiatives have broken taboos by encouraging dialogue on sexuality, gender relations and related violence, issues that are delicate even outside the churches. The use of contextual Bible studies promoted by the EHAIA has helped in transforming perspectives on issues such as rape and gender-based violence.

The EPN, Mpundu explained, has engaged with EHAIA in mobilizing church leaders for community action on HIV and AIDS offering treatment and literacy trainings. “At the EPN, we have also supported EHAIA in reviewing its work, planning of projects, as well as exchanging experiences from mutual learning in our engagement with the HIV issues,” he said.

According to Mpundu, EHAIA has brought in sensitivity in response to HIV. The approach in EHAIA’s work does not perceive men merely as “perpetrators” but helps to create safe spaces for men to discuss their role models, relationships with their fathers and interaction with women.

Mpundu said the churches and faith based organizations need to strengthen their work in order to diminish HIV and AIDS related stigma. This stigma, he said, continues to be an obstacle in the effective work for HIV prevention and care in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Also the “false theology” which promotes the idea of people living with HIV and AIDS healed by God without treatment needs to be addressed by churches, he said. Churches and other faith based organizations must be more proactive in providing HIV education and awareness, while contributing to the care of the AIDS-affected, Mpundu concluded.