Women from all over the country who are living with HIV and who are clergy, lay leaders, theologians and seminarians from the member churches of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) gathered in San Pablo City, Laguna for a three-day workshop on scripture, gender, sexuality, and HIV. NCCP is the fellowship of mainline Protestant and non-Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines.
Rev. Pauline Wanjiru Njiru of the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA) of the World Council of Churches facilitated sessions on Contextual Bible Studies and Rev. JP Heath from the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally affected by HIV and AIDS (INERELA+) and the Church of Sweden conducted the workshops on the pro-SAVE (Safer practices, Access to treatment, Voluntary Counseling and Testing, Empowerment) and anti-SSDDIM (Stigma, Shame, Denial, Discrimination, Inaction, and Misaction) approach to HIV and AIDS.
“In response to the continuing rapid spread of HIV and AIDS in the Philippines, our HIV program together with the Women’s Desk continue to provide opportunities and spaces for comprehensive education and training to equip our churches in addressing this alarming issue,” said Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, program secretary on Ecumenical Education and Nurture of NCCP.
CONTEXTUAL BIBLE STUDIES AND SAVE APPROACH
“Key aspects of engaging on HIV are both the accurate information about HIV (prevention, treatment, care and support), addressing the stigma and discrimination as well as identifying and addressing the very specific vulnerabilities to HIV. More often than not these vulnerabilities run along the fault lines of exclusion and marginalization. Faith communities are not immune from this, rather the pervasive patriarchal power structures and teaching within Christianity and other faiths feed into this paradigm,” said Fr. Heath on the SAVE approach.
The SAVE approach helped women religious leaders to understand that HIV and AIDS are more complex than just medical conditions.
“I realized that HIV is not all about homosexuality. Sexuality must be studied more because in the Filipino context, most people are in denial regarding this issue. It is one of the basics talking about HIV and AIDS to inspire and encourage vulnerable people to embrace them with love and acceptance and to bring God’s hope through this issue,” said a woman pastor from the United Methodist Church (UMC).
“It is easy to say how you have been stigmatized but is hard to answer how you have stigmatized others,” added a lay leader from the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches (CPBC).
To deepen understanding the understanding on the vulnerabilities, the Contextual Bible Study (CBS) model was employed. CBS was first developed by Ujamaa as an initiative from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to address sexual and gender based violence from within the faith community.
Rev. Njiru said that “we need to highlight the way in which women in the bible have not only stood up to the powers of their time, but received strong endorsement from Jesus to be authentically who they are. Even though Tamar was raped by her brother, she did not keep quiet about it; even though the Samaritan woman at the well was self-stigmatized, she engaged with Jesus and Jesus engaged with her; even though the disciples encourage Jesus to send away the women who is anointing his feet, Jesus praises her and gives her example of service to be something to be remembered every time He is remembered. Women are a key part of Jesus ministry, and without their ministry His ministry is vastly diminished.”
UNDERSTANDING LGBTI PEOPLE
CBS and SAVE approach sessions highlighted the realities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. Part of the sessions conducted were the alternative approach to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that suggested a fresh reading based on literary analysis of the Hebrew text and the contextual bible study on Judges 19: 1-30 that aimed to recognize diverse male sexualities and to challenge gender-based violence.
“I really don’t have problems with LGBTI people. What bothers me most is how other people treat them. After the workshop I really have the best wish I could beg that people will open their eyes to then; they should be left open and accepted,” said a lay leader from United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP).
The sessions allowed participants to affirm the diversity of human sexuality.
“A person does not choose what he/she feels. Whether we are attracted to a man or a woman, it is not a problem to fix. God created us beautiful and wonderful,” said a pastor from UMC.
“They are also humans and they are also created in the image of God. Sex organs do not determine our sexual and gender orientation,” added a youth leader from UCCP.
For a seminarian from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, “All I know is there is nothing wrong in love, no matter who you are.”
COMPASSION FOR PLHIV
“Before I considered them as unfortunate. The situation of people living with HIV (PLHIV) is a call to Church that we must take an action to save more lives and that salvation of people living on heart is the priority/ mission of Christ,” said a lay leader from Iglesia Evangelica Metodista En Las Islas Filipinas (IEMELIF).
A pastor from CPBC added that “it is not a punishment for them. Respect and understand them like Jesus did with marginalized people.”
Participants affirmed that PLHIV are not to be isolated.
“… they should be the ones we help and encourage to stand firm and be comfortable and also to accept them as one of a whole part of us,” said seminarian from the Episcopal Church in the Philippines.
For a woman living with HIV, “we are equal with/without HIV. PLHIV are not helpless, we can still function normally like any other people.”
COMMITMENT TO HIV RESPONSE
“What is clear is that bringing the two disciplines, the two methodologies together strengthened the content and impact of the workshop. In the post workshop wrap up session participant after participant not only spoke about the way in which they had been personally challenged and touched, but about the commitment they wanted to make to the group to further this work in a number of key areas,” said Fr. Heath.
A future pastor of UMC affirmed that “the Contextual Bible Studies opened a new way for me on how to study and understand the Bible. And I can also apply these new learnings by loving more and become a more accepting individual.”
The SAVE approach has offered concrete ways for women religious leaders to prevent the further spread of HIV and AIDS in the country.
At the workshop’s conclusion, a pastor from UCCP said that “I can promote men and women to test for HIV. I can be more compassionate and understanding with people living with HIV and influence my organization to do the same. For youth organizations, I can educate them about being protected and to not discriminate PLHIV. I want to be partners with NCCP in promoting and advancing the cause for #PreventionNOTCondemnation.”