Top Adventist Leaders in Southern Africa
Tested for HIV/AIDS
Goal is to raise awareness, compassion
BY RAJMUND DABROWSKI, director of communication, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa
eventh-day Adventist Church leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa were counseled and tested for HIV on November 2 in a public statement that the HIV/AIDS pandemic requires practical attention in the community.

"It's good to know my status," said Paul Ratsara, president of the church's Southern Africa-Indian Ocean region (SID). Saying he wanted to do his part in stamping out HIV/AIDS, Ratsara was joined by his wife, Denise, for a private and voluntary counseling and testing session and was one of the 54 leaders representing 23 countries in the region.

"IT'S GOOD TO KNOW MY STATUS": Paul Ratsara, center, SID president, and his wife Denise, right, are tested for HIV?AIDS on November 2 during the executive committee year-end meetings. [ Photo: R. Dabrowski/ANN]
A year-end leadership meeting in Johannesburg devoted a full day of its six-day agenda to discuss ways to address the HIV/AIDS issue, which affects nearly every family in the region.

Members of the executive committee represent a community of more than 3 million Adventists worshiping in 20,000 congregations. SID is regarded as one of the fastest growing areas of the church globally.

"In all, this is a statement, as leaders, that we are taking this situation seriously," Ratsara said. "Though we are making some progress in combating the pandemic, like in Zimbabwe, for example, the situation is serious."
"We baptize thousands of people, but many of them carry the virus, perhaps 20 percent," said Dr. Alex Llaguno, the church's Health Ministries director for the region. "The church must intensify its efforts to practically turn the situation around."

In a decision to systemically address issues in the SID territories, Rhoda Nthani, a public health professional was introduced as a full-time HIV/AIDS Coordinator for the region. She will implement a strategic plan and policy to work with local leadership and implement guidelines and programs already established in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa.

In 2001, the Adventist world church established a center for the Adventist AIDS International Ministry in Johannesburg.
"Our approach is to recognize and promote an approach that each Adventist church becomes a support center for the community," said center director Dr. Oscar Giordano.

Giordano, assisted by his wife, Dr. Eugenia Giordano, presented a training program that involved members of the SID Executive Committee and led in having an Adventist Declaration on HIV/AIDS adopted by the group. The declaration includes a commitment of each leader to engage in HIV/AIDS prevention and to "speak out against stigma and discrimination of people living with and affected by HIV."

INFORMED CONSENT: Francis Louw, South African Union president, reviews a consent form before being tested for HIV and AIDS on November 2. About 1,000 people die of AIDS daily in South Africa. [ Photo: R. Dabrowski/ANN]
Evaluating what the church must address, Tsepiso Sesioana, a professional psychotherapist from Lesotho expressed a concern that so many church members continue to resort to being judgmental when confronted with someone's plight.

"As a church we are facing a dilemma," Sesioana said. "Where does the pastor go if he is HIV positive? His ministry will be affected.

"There's silence in the church about the HIV/AIDS issue, and many are hiding behind the "rightness in behavior" and morality. This must be addressed," he added.

Attending the meetings, Matthew Bediako, secretary of the General Conference, agreed that the attitudes in the church must undergo change.
"It is unfortunate that we tend to be very judgmental," Bediako said. "Especially when it comes to HIV and AIDS we immediately conclude that the victim has been unfaithful and therefore we condemn them. The church, instead of showing mercy and compassion, we avoid them, we don't want to be even with them."

He referred to a statement made by women from Lesotho, who said they couldn't turn to their church for help because members didn't care.
"It touches us," Bediako said. "[So,] what is our mission on this earth? Our mission is to touch people. If Christ were here on earth as he touched lepers in his time, I believe today not only would he visit AIDS victims, he would hug them, he would welcome him to his presence."

Bediako appealed to the church to "show compassion, love to our sisters and brothers who are victims of this disease."

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