International HIV/AIDS Advocates Visit Philippine Churches and Organizations of People Living With Hiv And Aids (PLHIVs)

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines co-hosted with the Cosmopolitan Church – UCCP, the visit of three international advocates on the issue of HIV and AIDS. The three guests were: Rev. Canon Dr. Gideon Baguma Byamugisha, Rev. Rosemary Phumzile Mabileza and Ms. Elijah Fung. The visit was made possible through the support of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

On June 4, 2013, more than a hundred church people gathered at the Social Hall of St. Mary and St. John Cathedral, Episcopal Church in the Philippines to hear Rev. Canon Dr. Gideon Byamugisha talk about HIV and AIDS.  Rev. Byamugisha is an Ugandan Anglican priest who holds the distinction of being the first African religious leader to publicly disclose his HIV+ status way back in 1992 in an effort to break the silence, stigma, shame and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS.

His advocacy on HIV and AIDS brought him to the Philippines through the partnership of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines in the continuing efforts to educate people on HIV and thereby reduce stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and mis-action (SSDDDIM).  He talked quite lengthily on stigma and discrimination and its causes.  He said that people discriminate because there are irrational fears.  He pointed out that one of these fears is the irrational fear of contagion.  People move away or shun persons living with HIV (PLHIV) because they think that holding or hugging or even kissing a person with HIV, they will contract the virus.  This is utterly untrue since HIV can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse, using contaminated needles, and blood transfusion where the infused blood is contaminated with HIV.  Another is irrational fear of quick death.  People think that once they are infected, they will soon die.  Hence, people who have the virus are no longer given appropriate services.  Rev. Byamugisha gave himself as an example as a person who is still well and alive today having lived with HIV for the last 21 years.

It is because of the SSDDIM that Rev. Byamugisha, developed that S.A.V.E. approach.  SAVE stands for S = safer practices; A = access to treatment and proper nutrition; V = voluntary testing and counseling that is stigma-sensitive; and E = empowerment.  The rationale behind this approach is “to claim the Good News on HIV and AIDS for ourselves, our families, our communities, nations, regions and continents.”

Towards the end of the workshop, Rev. Byamugisha asked everyone to take a “simple test” in which the participants will have to answer questions with a YES or a NO.   The self-test which was confidential was meant to help the participants to the forum assess their own vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.

The workshop ended with a commitment signing led by Rev. Byamugisha that all present will actively help in awareness raising and reducing stigma and discrimination.  The commitment reads:

In solidarity, we commit ourselves to pray, act, seek justice, life of dignity
for persons living and affected by HIV and AIDS.
It is our intention to be active members of healing communities, creating circles of care and advocacy
for all living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.
We will work to stop the stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV and AIDS
and will develop programs that will provide support and respond to their needs.
We make this commitment with the help of God.

Rev. Byamugisha is joined by Rev. Phumzile Mabileza, Executive Director of International Interfaith Network of Religious Leaders Living and Affected with AIDS (INERELA +) and Ms. Elijah Fung, Manager of St. John’s Cathedral HIV Education Center in Hongkong who also offered solidarity and inspirational messages for the Philippine churches to take on the task of journeying with and offering services to People Living with HIV and AIDS. They also shared on the different programs that their respective organizations do with regards to HIV and AIDS.

On October 5, 2013, the three international visitors visited the Aglipay Central Theological Seminary (ACTS) in Urdaneta, Pangasinan. The seminary caters to men and women preparing themselves for priesthood in the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) which is a member church of the NCCP.

Rev. Canon Dr. Byamugisha also gave message on the SSDDIM.  About 120 people, mostly coming from the seminary, different dioceses of the PIC, and some from the United Methodist Church attended the event.

Rev. Byamugisha ended his Philippine sojourn with a press conference at the Bishop La Verne D. Mercado Ecumenical Center.  He was joined by Rev. Rex R.B. Reyes, Jr., NCCP General Secretary, Rev. Phumzile Mabileza, Executive Director of International Interfaith Network of Religious Leaders, Ms. Elijah Fung, Manager of St. John’s Cathedral HIV Education Center in Hongkong, Ms. Emma Cantor of the UMC Board of Women’s Work, and Ms. Elena Felix of Babae Plus.

Rev. Byamugisha’s “parting words” focused on 4 themes.  One, he said that he would like to give praise to God for people who have been supportive of people living with HIV (PLHIV) and AIDS, for science and the scientific community who continue to do research on HIV and develop anti-retrovirals (ARV).   Second, he would like to give thanks to churches who care for the hurting and continue to journey with PLHIV.  Third, he prays for in behalf of PLHIV – especially those who continue to live with the stigma, are shamed or discriminated.  He reminds people who are negative of the virus that they too have a role in achieving the goals of zero new infections and zero people dying of AIDS.  Finally, he requests that more would take up the S.A.V.E. advocacy – safer practices, access to treatment, voluntary counseling and testing, and empowerment.

They also visited the offices of Babae Plus, an organization of women living and affected with HIV and AIDS, and the Positive Action Foundation of the Philippines, Inc. in Manila and conducted dialogue with our brothers and sisters in the two centers.