“We need help, but we need hope. We need help, but we need hope,” a person living with HIV/AIDS told the ninety participants at the international consultation for the “Bible Engagement in the Context of HIV and AIDS in Africa,” sponsored by the Forum of Bible Agencies International and the Africa Forum of Bible Agencies.
The four-day conference was held in Nairobi, Kenya, and featured testimonies from those infected with the virus and commentaries from distinguished theologians from Africa. “While we know HIV and AIDS are not only issues for Africans, for these discussions we wanted to focus on this particular geographic region,” said Neil Crosbie, consultation facilitator. Estimates in 2006 showed that almost two-thirds (sixty-three percent) of all persons infected with HIV lived in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 2.8 million people in the region became infected with HIV in 2006, more than all other regions of the world combined. Seventy-two percent of the world’s AIDS deaths (2.1 million) were in sub-Saharan Africa.
During the consultation, representatives from Bible agencies and other African ministries were challenged to reframe the HIV/AIDS discussion from “a problem that needs fixing” to “a life issue that needs to be addressed.” According to Rt. Rev. D. Zac Niringiye, assistant bishop of Kampala, theologian and former Africa regional director of the Church Mission Society, “The HIV/AIDS story is not an African story. You must have this sense that it affects me. That is why I have been pleading to go beyond the helping paradigm. God invites us not to help people primarily, but actually invites us to change so that we can become more like Jesus.”
Speakers also encouraged a broad consideration of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, noting that the epidemic actually exposes systemic and societal problems of poverty, injustice and gender inequality.
Dr. Madipoane Masenya, an associate professor and chair of the Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies departments at the University of Limpopo, Unisa, Republic of South Africa, asked, “As people who are in one way or another connected to the Bible, either as individual Christians, as Bible translators, teachers, professors, clergy persons…and as those informed by the analysis of the use of the Bible, how may we use the Bible ‘for better’ in HIV/AIDS contexts?” She cautioned participants to be conscious of the ways the Bible is sometimes misapplied to promote power dynamics (politics, economics, religion, etc). She also suggested that one way the Bible can be effectively applied in HIV/AIDS ministry is to highlight passages that affirm the dignity of all people as human beings, created in the image of God.
Dr. Geoff Foster, a pediatrician from Zimbabwe and founder of the Family AIDS Caring Trust, reminded participants that biblical teaching that can impact the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as care for those afflicted is being used in many local churches. Foster recommended that Bible agencies find ways to intersect with and support those efforts.
According to Roberto Laver, executive director of the Forum, “I believe the member agencies of the Forum of Bible Agencies—both the international alliance and the Africa regional group—are strengthened by this interaction. Their ministries will no doubt be improved in light of the tremendously helpful insights that have been gained during our days together.”
Collective responses by the participants were presented in a common statement: “We have sought to wrestle with complex and challenging issues. We recognize that we are faced with enormous challenges to which there are no easy solutions.” The thirty-two agencies represented agreed to “work toward greater understanding and responsiveness to those infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.” They also expressed a commitment to “encouraging approaches to the Bible that enable people to discover and experience its life transforming and liberating power.”
The Forum of Bible Agencies International is an alliance of more than twenty-five Bible agencies with a shared vision to work together to maximize the worldwide access and impact of God’s word. The Forum was founded in 1990 on the belief that the speed and scope of accomplishing this vision could be significantly increased through collaboration and cooperation.