MALAWI: Pastor Gilbert Momola: “We must stop looking at people living with HIV/AIDS as sinners”
Pastor Gilbert said disclosing his status has made a positive difference in his life and the lives of his flock
MACHINGA, 7 February 2008 (IRIN) - Gilbert Momola, 37, is the only pastor in Malawi's Evangelical Baptist Church who has declared his HIV-positive status. Despite the divisions it caused, his move prompted many to examine the stigma they attach to HIV. He lost his wife and child to AIDS-related illnesses, but has since remarried and had a child; both his wife and child are negative.
"It all started when I was at the Evangelical Baptist Bible School in Blantyre in 1999. My [first] wife was always in and out of hospital, suffering from a host of illnesses. One day I decided to go for voluntary counselling and testing (VCT), a decision that was going to change my life forever.
"Naturally, the first thing that happens when you are told you are HIV positive is shock; I was shocked because I did not expect to catch the virus. Then there was the issue of stigma - would the congregation welcome an HIV-positive pastor to minister to them?
"I had planned to disclose my status at a pastors' conference, but what I heard saddened me. I had asked them what they would do if they saw an HIV- positive person and they answered that they would laugh. I was shocked and did not disclose that I was HIV positive.
"Later, when I was given a station from where I would be ministering, some pastors protested, saying how could the authorities bother to give me a station when I was going to die soon.
"What I have discovered is that there are certain churches in Malawi that are still unwilling to embrace people like me. They keep preaching that those with AIDS are sinners or got HIV through promiscuity, which is wrong.
"The mentality purporting those living with HIV/AIDS as sinners is slowly going away. There is still more work to be done though. We must stop looking at people living with HIV/AIDS as sinners and instead give them hope, compassion, care and love.
"From the time I came out in the open to declare my status, people felt free to talk to me about their status. Even doctors at the local clinic refer those that are HIV-positive to me for spiritual counselling and moral support. We encourage each other to live positively and contribute to development endeavours in our areas.
"As churches, we have come up with the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders of People Living with AIDS (MANERELA). In my own church I also work as Youth and HIV/AIDS Coordinator, and I must say that people are beginning to realise the importance of giving hope to AIDS patients.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]