Caribbean Conference of Churches takes theological look at HIV/AIDS By Samantha Alleyne
Stabroek News
December 2, 2001

The Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC) initiated a theological look at the question of human sexuality as it sought to link an understanding of sexuality in the Caribbean to the issue of HIV and AIDS and arrive at a better understanding of the factors fuelling the epidemic in the region.

`Human Sexuality and HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean - A Theological Approach' was the theme under which a conference organised by the CCC was held in the Dominican Republic from November 14 to the 16.

The conference, which saw participants from throughout the Caribbean - Guyana, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and the host country - was held at the Coral Costa Caribe Hotel and Resort in Corretera San Pedro de Macoris, Juan Dolio.

The aims and objectives of the conference were:

- to contribute to and deepen the theological understanding of and ethical debate on human sexuality in the Caribbean;

- to facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the issue of human sexuality and to explore its relationship to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region;

- to make available to the CCC member churches the most up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS in the region;

- to assist member churches in developing policies which would inform pastoral programmes as a compassionate response to persons living with HIV and AIDS and their families.

The conference was organised by the CCC in collaboration with the Christian Aid and the World Council of Churches (WCC) and saw numerous presentations from persons in the Dominican Republic and Haiti along with other persons in the CCC.

The role of the church in responding more sensitively, compassionately and effectively to people living with HIV/AIDS and their families was explored.

A man living with the virus made a very impassioned and touching presentation on the last day of the conference. Luis Valerio, who was fired from his job as a journalist because of his illness, pleaded that whatever was discussed in the conference should not just be left in the air. He asserted that the days for nice sunny settings and buffet lunches were over and action needed to be taken.

He disclosed that there was isolation for persons living with AIDS in his country and pointed out that it could happen to anyone in any country. "We cannot allow the devil to win," he stressed. "Don't discriminate against us, we have equal rights," he pleaded.

The man said that he would not wish his experiences on anyone, but noted that he had been able to survive with the help of God. "I don't expect to die any time soon, God Helps me. I have no job and it's a struggle to support my grandmother and children," the man said.

Another touching presentation was made by social worker, Natasha Caldeion who noted that though Valerio's life was very difficult, he immediately had three advantages: he was a man, a citizen of the Dominican Republic and not black.

She told the story of a young black Haitian woman living in the Dominican Republic with the virus, who did not even have access to tablets to keep down the fever caused by the virus.

"She is a black woman, a Haitian, poor and as such does not have the right to medical treatment in this country," the woman said.

She said that as Christians, persons at the conference needed to ask themselves what they were doing to deal with the problem. "There has been enough bureaucracy and too many consultations at five-star hotels. We need more action," she stressed.

Caldeion noted that she thought she was entering a different country when she arrived at the hotel where the conference was held and noted that too much money was being spent on bureaucracy and too little was reaching the poor and those living with the virus.

"The devil is winning," she noted while pointing out that HIV was a disease that targetted everyone, but which thrived in impoverished areas.

Reverend Paul of Haiti suggested that there was a great need to include persons living with the virus when making policies to deal with the virus. He noted that because of the poor state of his council even before persons were infected they are discriminated against because of their poverty, colour and in some cases being an immigrant in other countries.

Haiti is listed as the country most affected by the virus in the Caribbean and Rev Paul disclosed that because of their religious beliefs some persons refused to take treatment. He said that some did not believe in the virus and when they became ill they felt that the misfortune was placed on them by evil-minded persons. As such, they took their own measures to get rid of the misfortune not believing that they had contracted HIV continued to have sex with persons.

Speaking to Stabroek News, General Secretary of the CCC, Gerard Granado, said that the mandate of his organisation was a two-crown one, which was to promote ecumenism and social change in obedience to Jesus Christ and in solidarity of the poor. He explained that ecumenism meant the coming together of Christian churches and the organisation had been working on creating social change by mounting several programmes and projects throughout the Caribbean.

He said that in recent times his organisation had sought to engage in more contemporary challenges in the region; challenges to the quality of life to the people of the region and HIV/AIDS was once such challenge. "Wherever the quality of life is being threatened and the dignity of human persons is threatened the church has a obligation to enter to redress these situations in a positive way," Granado said. According to him over the last two years since his appointment as general secretary in March of 1999 they have set themselves the task of developing and implementing programmes to deal with the epidemic and other challenges in the region.

Focusing on the conference itself, Granado described it as part of a wider programme that the CCC had on HIV and AIDS. He said that the conference was intended to bring together church leaders from the region to discuss the problem from a theological point of view.

"Our specific rationale for involvement and engagement with social issues is a theological one and we need always to be clear on what that theological rationale is whenever we operate," he said.

He noted that although it was clear that they could not arrive at a definitive position at the conference it was certainly a start from where they could move towards a consensus in terms of a theological understanding of the problem.

He said that apart from engaging church leaders from around the region with the theological issue, the conference was also meant to share with them the most up-to-date information on the illness and what some churches had already started doing.

Granado disclosed that there were two reasons for holding the conference in the Dominican Republic - one being the fact that there was a lot of constructive work on the island in terms of a response to HIV and AIDS, on the part of the national programme and on the part of the churches. The second reason had to do with the whole question of affirming the non- anglophone Caribbean in terms of the CCC, which was very vital and was a part of Granado's administration.

Granado agreed that there was the general opinion that since the island of Haiti, which is actually the sister island of the Dominican Republic, was one of the territories most affected by the dreaded disease the conference should have been held there. But he pointed out that there were certain logistical problems with organising such a conference on that island. He noted that one of the factors which would have prevented the conference being held in Haiti was the fact that there was only one member church of the CCC located there. He disclosed that the CCC had plans on the drawing board to go to Haiti to do something specific for that island. He said that it would not be a regional conference so the logistical problems would not play a part.

While the conference was the first of its kind organised by the CCC, Granado noted that that was not to say that the CCC had not been involved in HIV/AIDS work in other aspects of its programme.

He noted that the conference was viewed as the start to a whole new process, in which the CCC would continue reflecting theologically while being engaged the process of responding to the problem. He said that the CCC would put out some publications on the conference focusing on the whole question of human sexuality and the whole ethical question of the rights of ill people to treatment.

He noted that public health general in the region needed to be upgraded and pointed out that he was increasingly of the opinion that in certain parts of the Caribbean, medical health had become a consumer item. "In certain situations if you are seriously ill and poor you are as good as dead because one cannot access the required medical assistance in certain places without paying enormously for it at this point of time," he noted.

He said that public health and public health education needed to be looked at. He projected that there would be another conference of such magnitude down the road.

The CCC has been in existence since 1973. It has member churches in 34 Caribbean countries and uses four official languages - English, Spanish, French and Dutch.