Rev Heath of SA is HIV+; he wants religious leaders to fight stigma
AS various religious leaders converged at the Art of Living Foundation here on Tuesday to dispel myths about HIV/AIDS, the passionate advocacy of an Anglican priest from Johannesburg, South Africa caught everyone’s eye. Rev J P Heath, is HIV positive.
Rev Heath is a founder-member of INERELA (International Interfaith network of religious leaders), which has 10,000 inter-faith religious leaders, both men and women, as members. And, all are HIV positive.
Rev Heath explained that stigma and discrimination against People living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) has to be addressed urgently. “People are being pushed to margins, they don’t go for testing due to fear of being discovered, which is not good for the society overall,” he said.
Hence, the religious leaders have committed to allot 5-7 minutes in their discourse to talk positively about HIV and negatively about stigma while giving discourse. Secondly, they will publicly associate with PLHAs by going to their homes and telling people not to harass them. Thirdly, at various stages they would stress importance of testing for HIV by undergoing the tests.
“Religious leaders are humans and so they are susceptible too. Many people have asked me how I got HIV, but I say that’s a wrong question to ask. We need to change this mindset,” said Rev Heath, who was tested positive for HIV 11 years ago.
Despite being a religious leader, Rev Heath faced stigma. He explained that the first level was self stigma and the next was the fear that he would be kicked out of the diocese once it was known to the Bishop. However, he went ahead that revealed his status to the Bishop who surprisingly was understanding but told him not to divulge it to others.
However, Rev Heath gathered confidence from this experience and and revealed his status to his congregation.
“Once I raised awareness and others in the diocese came to know about by HIV status, I was well-received. It’s taken the church time to understand that the skills and expertise I have about the issue is valuable,” he said. In 2002, he formed INERELA, which went international in 2008 International AIDS summit, with branches in Brazil, Haiti, India and UK. The organisation has also created holistic prevention practices called SAVE, which has been adopted by two government s in Africa.
Finally, he said that even if HIV infection was stopped this moment, there would still be a need to create aggressive awareness about prevention and safety practices for next 40 years.
(Published in Deccan Herald on 28th September, 2010) *I had covered this story but it does not have my byline since other newspapers had also written about it.