Canadian Church and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic
but not too late.
Years ago Karen
and John Plater made a short-lived speaking tour around a
handful of Canadian churches to discuss HIV/AIDS. It was an
intensely personal mission because John was HIV-positive. When
they got to the part of their story about how John contracted
the disease, the couple could see tense shoulders relax in
relief that it was from a tainted blood transfusion and not from
homosexual activity. "Then people were okay with it," remembers
Karen. "We were innocent victims, so they wanted to help us."
"I don't know why we allow other issues to supersede our
compassion. But we do."
Ten years later Karen is resource and
communications coordinator for Presbyterian World Service and
Development in Canada. Today her husband is healthy, but she
believes the church's reaction to HIV/AIDS still belongs in the
emergency room of a spiritual hospital.
"We [Canadian Christians] could have been a
leader," she says, in the struggle against the pandemic that has
killed millions. "I don't know why we allow other issues to
supersede our compassion. But we do."
Plater is not alone in her assessment that it is
difficult to find a strong and steady pulse in the North
American Church's response to HIV/AIDS. Last year World Vision
Canada advertised widely for a day-long seminar designed to help
churches develop an effective ministering presence in the AIDS
crisis. World Vision would take the seminar directly to
congregations. No one signed up.
"We tried to do some quiet probing why," says
Don Posterski, director of church relations for World Vision.
"Anecdotally our suspicions were confirmed that this issue was
not on the agenda of the church. And Evangelical church
attenders seem to be less open to respond to the needs than
others, or even those who don't attend church."
Elsewhere, the evidence moves from anecdotal to
statistical and sobering. A survey sponsored by World Vision,
conducted in 2001 by California-based Barna Research Group,
revealed that only three percent of Evangelical Americans said
they would "definitely" help children orphaned by AIDS.
The survey also showed that Evangelical
Christians were significantly less likely than non-Christians to
give money for AIDS education and prevention programs worldwide.
"The stereotypical reading of the HIV/AIDS
crisis is that they have brought it on themselves," says
Posterski. "And of course the tragic reality is: that is not the
global story." When AIDS first crept into the consciousness of
the Church in North America, it was not unheard of for a sense
of condemnation and a belief that HIV/AIDS was God's judgment on
homosexual behaviour to creep into conversations between some
Christians and even sermons from some well known preachers.
"We put sins of sexuality in a special
category," says Posterski. "Even though we taste temptation
ourselves, we have the capacity to condemn with ease."
The Church's response to HIV/AIDS is complicated
by the fact that it is often transmitted through sexual
behaviour that the Church may find unacceptable, agrees Andrew
Ignatieff, director of the Anglican Church's Primate's World
Relief and Development Fund.
"Addressing the issues of HIV/AIDS takes the
Church into areas of thought and action, issues of sex and
sexuality, where the Church has difficulty developing consistent
policies and plans of action. I think it is a large and complex
Problems that are complex and uncomfortable are
simply easier to ignore—especially when there are other ways to
keep busy. "HIV/AIDS came to the Church at a time when many
churches are preoccupied with their survival as institutions and
their financial viability," says Ignatieff. Issues like
declining attendance, residential school lawsuits or struggles
to resolve doctrinal issues within denominations made it easier
for the Canadian Church to look inwardly to tend to its own
wounds instead of reaching out to those wounded by HIV/AIDS.
Jim Christie is a United Church minister in
Ottawa, a leader in a denomination known for social justice
activism. Even he can confess that reaching out to the wounded
can make strong arms weary. "The kind of thing that is happening
in Africa is staggering. We are bombarded by images of an
unparalleled epidemic," he says. "People have a kind of
World Vision's Don Posterski points out that
Canadians also tend to look at the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa
through the distorting lens of the North American experience of
the disease. In Africa, AIDS hits women and children the
hardest. And in cases when it is contracted through sexual
promiscuity, that "promiscuity" usually involves a woman so poor
that she sees selling her body as the only way left to her to
feed her children. "It could be that in agencies like World
Vision, maybe we haven't figured out how to tell the story. But
when you see it up close, compassion is generated, not
That realization, and the sense that the
Canadian Church is not doing all it can do to fight this
disease, prompted Posterski to recruit a handful of diverse
Canadian Church leaders and fly with them to Africa. They would
cover two countries in seven days and return to Canada,
hopefully moved to galvanize their churches and denominations to
leap off the spiritual stretcher and get to work. He thinks it
might have worked.
We expect people to know how to
respond, but this is a very difficult issue for Christians
Jim Christie was on the plane. "This trip helped
to conquer hopelessness," he says. The man who will confess to
sometimes being weary says, "Compassion fatigue and wringing
one's hands over Africa is a luxury we can't afford because of
our faith. We're not entitled to compassion fatigue."
Jeremy Bell's voice bounces off the phone from
his home in Vancouver when he talks about the Africa trip. He is
excited about the possibilities for the Canadian Church,
including the congregation he pastors in trendy Kitsilano, to be
leaders in the fight against AIDS. "We should be ashamed at some
level, but I'd rather just say, 'Let's get on with it,'" he
explains. "The pandemic, for me, was brought down to bite-sized
pieces. Christians in North America are the best reservoirs of
transferable cash there is, and we can do that. The pandemic in
Africa hasn't been on our radar, but now it is."
That is reason to be encouraged, says Sean
Campbell, director of Samaritan's Purse Canada. "Perhaps the
Church hasn't responded as it should. Is the Church willing?
Absolutely. I think there is a huge educational process that
needs to take place here. We expect people to know how to
respond, but this is a very difficult issue for Christians to
address. Maybe it is the Christian agencies that need to lead
the way and show them how."
The recently announced partnership between the
Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the World Evangelical
Fellowship in a new AIDS initiative for Africa is one example of
this emerging leadership. By connecting with already existing
African Church alliances as well as "a small but growing number
of large churches in North America whom God is calling to work
with churches in Africa" the EFC hopes to facilitate the
relationships between donor agencies and North American and
African churches, as well as mobilize individual Christians in
both parts of the world to have an effective, biblical response
to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
For some sectors of the Christian Church an
effective and biblical response has been a long time coming. But
it is a welcome sight.
Karen Stiller is the associate editor of