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Grave misunderstandings

Marvin Gunter, Contributor,

ON JULY 16, The Sunday Gleaner carried an article entitled "Blame the churches" which was a reported coverage of my presentation "The Jamaica Religious Culture and its Role in the Acceleration of HIV" made at the XIII International AIDS Conference held in Durban South Africa recently.

The headline and the accompanying part of my presentation printed have invited and understandably so, responses which described the presentation as not researched, discrediting, unpatriotic, misguided, as per articles published on July 20 and 23.

I must at this point indicate that I was as shocked and mortified as many people would be at discovering the blaming and accusatory way in which the article was printed. As it turns out, the report was conveniently segmented and sensationalised into controversy.

May I take this opportunity to state categorically, that it was never my intention to blame or accuse the church of anything. I agree the church is no more responsible than the home, politics, NGO policies, schools or even you and I.

Considering though I could not study them all, I studied the church since as leaders they can play an extremely effective role in the fight. If the point of the research was printed along with the issues leading the point, then readers would not have been raped of the opportunity to interpret the information in its correct context.

Church power

The presentation in its full and delivered context demonstrated: the power of the church in influencing and shaping behaviour of Christians and non-Christians alike; the power of the church in arresting the needs of people in their communities while administering successful pastoral interventions where they serve. The presentation also carried an example of a church group that has successfully made such an intervention into the community in Jamaica.

This happens to be only one of several churches that I have worked with on HIV information, education and communication (IEC) and the business of delivering compassion and care to persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), which was graphically outlined in the presentation, despite insinuations of the two respondents to the report published on July 16.

At the beginning I also explained that due to the size of the study and the limited time allotted, only the inferences of the study could be presented, but I would be available for statistical details afterwards, an invitation the reporter declined to utilise. The Sunday Gleaner excluded all of those important details from the report it carried, thus inviting the wrath and anger of many readers.

The International AIDS Conference provides a forum for exchange of ideas and skills among countries and an exchange of intervention strategies employed in the fight against HIV/AIDS. My paper was intended to highlight the power of the church in addressing HIV interventions, using Jamaica as an example.

Clarification

As a matter of information for the authors of the respondent articles published on July 20 and 23, I would like to make certain points not cleared up by the foregoing. A research was conducted sampling randomly several church-goers across Jamaica using questionnaires to invite responses to questions such as, Is AIDS a punishment from God?', Do you think YOU could get HIV or AIDS', People with AIDS should be isolated' and 'Only prostitutes, wild people and gays get AIDS?'.

The large number of church-goers who agreed with certain issues, led to one important result of the study: 'Many persons are unfeeling towards HIV based on a perception of invulnerability to the illness as Christians since it is a punishment from God for sinful behaviour'.

Therefore, it is unlikely that these persons would have any feeling for PLWHA or even undertake an AIDS ministry in their churches and more importantly the communities in which these churches serve. The study also kept in mind that Kingston is not Jamaica.

The position that AIDS is a divine judgement largely a consequence of anti-Christian sexual behaviour is luxury we cannot afford to blind our fight against HIV, especially in a world where children are infected by their mothers, and faithful wives are infected by their husbands.

Also, the belief that the protection of a nation rests with or can be accomplished solely by the chastity and fidelity of our fellowmen is a dream which we wish could be realised but realists acknowledge as utopian.

The church cannot be an institution without morals and certainly the church cannot be expected to relax its religious views on issues. However, we need to empower many churches to follow the precedence set by others, so they may begin to fight HIV in their communities.

The time for blaming and accusing are long past. HIV/AIDS is here and has to be addressed. The exchange of information at conferences such as these should not be seen as unpatriotic while 40,000 Jamaicans are suspected to be infected with HIV, but should be seen as an opportunity to learn from the experiences of other countries, making us stronger for the fight.

One of the important points brought out by the conference is that we cannot attack this illness in isolation. We have to address it as people, groups, church, Government, nation, continent and world. The church is a big part of the solution.

Marvin Gunter is chairman of the Caribbean Regional AIDS Network (CARAN).

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