“The materials are us” – Faith building bridges in the HIV response

Willeke Kempkes, a member of the local committee of Kerk in Actie and ICCO Cooperation, speaks to the July 21 opening session of "Faith Building Bridges" in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The July 21-22 interfaith event, sponsored by the World Council of Churches-Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, was held on the eve of the 2018 International AIDS Conference.

How faith groups and leaders can, should and are building bridges to more effectively eliminate AIDS as a public health threat is the focus of an interfaith event being held in Amsterdam, 21-22 July 2018.

Convened by the World Council of Churches – Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA), some 150 representatives of faith-based organizations, religious leaders, health-care providers, activists, policy makers and other stakeholders are addressing the theme of “Faith Building Bridges” in the lead-up to the 2018 International AIDS Conference.

Rommie Nauta representing KerkinActie and the International Department of ICCO Cooperation in the Netherlands, reflected, “Building bridges is only possible if you are really willing to open up. Our faith invites us to reach out to others, inspired by God’s love.“

Opening up, reaching out, moving out of our comfort zones are repeated themes during the event. As the global HIV response focuses on the gap in access and rights for people on the margins, it was recognized that margins are created within religious communities as well as in wider society.

“We need to look at where religion can be a solution, and not a problem – because bridges sustain life,”

said Ulysses Burley III, chair of the Global Organizing Committee for Faith Building Bridges, and founder of 

Setting the scene for the event, Vrije University dean Prof. Dr Ruard Ganzevoort , who is also a senator in the Dutch parliament, added that there are many bridges over the rivers and canals in Amsterdam – but also many dams. “Religion in the HIV response has also sometimes been seen as a dam,” he said. “ To recognize this and struggle with this is also what we are called to do today.”

Despite “enormous progress” on access to treatment, acting deputy executive director of UNAIDS Tim Martineau outlined that increasing access to treatment and prevention remains a critical bridge to build for all sectors responding to HIV.

21 July 2018, Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Francesca Merico, coordinator of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance HIV Campaign gives a word of introduction. Taking place at the Planetarium Gaasperplas in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on 21-22 July 2018, the World Council of Churches – Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance in collaboration with many faith and other partners organizes its bi-annual International Interfaith Event on HIV. Under the theme ”Faith Building Bridges”, the event is affiliated to the 2018 International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2018, held in Amsterdam on 23-27 July 2018.

The critical piece is making sure that the political will and the financial and human resources are there, as he affirmed, “Where there are sufficient resources, we are seeing the results we want to see.”

“Within faith-based organizations, there are untapped resources,” noted Gloria Ekpo from World Vision, “from the people and groups in churches to the power of the church to speak and act.”

Canon Gideon Byamugisha, the first religious leader in Africa to publicly disclose his positive HIV status, affirmed, “the first thing is to break the silence – expand the image that people have about HIV.”

To overcome the barrier of stigma, love remains central . “We are challenged to love”, Byamugisha said. “Can we build a love movement that is bigger than stigma?”

Jacqueline Alesi, Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), stated the challenge simply: “Building bridges is giving opportunities,” she said. “The materials for the bridge are us.”

We have the means and the methods, do we have the will?

While many presenters addressed the bridges needed in the overall HIV response, others highlighted the divides that still exist within religions themselves.

Jacq Carver, Jewish GIN board member, noted the difficulty – and the necessity – of reaching beyond progressive Jewish groups to reach “queer Orthodox and Hasidic youth”. “Reaching out and connecting” is essential, Carver stated, and one needs to “build a wider bridge“.

Najah Almugahed, inclusion and protection gender advisor at Islamic Relief also reflected that with 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, sometimes “intra-faith” dialogue is the most difficult, while religion must also create the evidence base for inclusion. “We say faith matters. How? Why?”

Rev. Edwin Sanders , Metropolitan Interdenominational Church added,

“Part of what is most important for us to do is turn from they, them, those. What we have started to realize is that it is really about us.”

Citing racism, sexism and classism, he said, we have to ask ourselves, “How does the virus manifest in us?”

Looking at the history of religious engagement in HIV care and treatment, John Blevins from Emory University concluded that the bridge needed today is between the “means” and the “will”. “We can see a path to lead us to a world without AIDS,” he said. “As people of faith, do we have the will?”

World Council of Churches, www.oikoumene.org