We are a Christian charity and as such, we passionately believe that everyone should experience acceptance and love. We believe that we were held responsible by Christ to care for those in need and suffering from oppression. HIV remains a hidden issue in many communities, including churches, where people don’t feel safe to seek and share support.
Together with Tearfund, Alongside You conducted a research report in 2013 into the relationship between churches and HIV. The report was born of the belief that it is the church’s responsibility to care for the vulnerable and those living with HIV are a significantly vulnerable group. Widows, orphans, sickness, bereavement, poverty, asylum seekers, betrayal, isolation, stigma and rejection are all issues that go hand in hand with HIV locally.
At the time of the report, 12% of people diagnosed with HIV in the UK are living in East London, 8,998 people with a further approximately 25% undiagnosed (Public Health Centre). Transmission of HIV through sex between men and women accounts for 71% of diagnoses in Newham, 63% of diagnoses were in the Black African community (Aston Mansfield: Newham key Statistics 2013).
Through our work with both families and churches, Alongside You was aware that HIV inside the church frequently remained a hidden issue. Church leaders often being unaware of people living with HIV in their congregations, as people living with HIV rarely felt safe to tell anyone and seek support within their church community due to stigma and previous negative experiences. Sadly even people who were very open and public about their HIV status in many other areas of their life do not feel safe to share in church. We believe the church, living out a Christian message of love and compassion, forgiveness and grace, healing and restoration, should be the first place Christians living with HIV can find the support needed, especially the unique spiritual and prayer support that only the church can provide.
Alongside You wants to support churches in East London to become increasingly known as welcoming and inclusive places for people living with HIV/AIDS. We seek to do this by working with church leaders and congregations to improve their knowledge and understanding of the issues related to HIV in the UK, to reduce the negative impacts of stigma and to become more competent and equipped to respond appropriately to those living with HIV in their churches.
Knowledge and attitudes about HIV amongst church members
-Only one quarter of church members had ever heard HIV talked about in church by an outside speaker or by their church leader.
-Overall 35% had been tested or encouraged someone else to get tested for HIV, this rose to around 50% for age 25-44 or from the African community.
-Around half thought HIV is a big problem in their local community or had no idea. However 96% chose one or more answer from a list of what the church should do in response to HIV and 9 out of 10 options received support from 60-80% of members. In addition 45-50% would be interested in attending a church session to learn more about HIV, and 30% volunteering to help people with HIV
-The majority knew at least some of the main ways HIV is transmitted. However, awareness of mother to baby transmission through birth or breastfeeding was low. In addition a significant minority 13-15% gave incorrect answers and thought it could be spread by insect bites or kissing a positive person.
-Just over half thought that an HIV positive person would feel well supported at their church, while 20-40% thought people would be frightened of people finding out, judged or gossiped about.
-23% thought you could tell if someone is HIV positive if they were regularly ill and lost weight.
-There was also a disconnection between people’s rational and emotional responses. Only 3% believe that HIV is passed by sharing food and plates, yet despite this only 47% would be comfortable eating food prepared by an HIV+ person.
Ways to support people in your church living with HIV
The support people need from their churches will of course depend on the individual and the current impact of HIV on their life. However, those interviewed consistently included the following:
-Spiritual support – prayer was most frequently mentioned, and something secular support organisations can’t offer. Also relevant Bible teaching; a Christian support group
-Practical support – help with childcare; someone to attend medical appointments with them; someone committed to check on them regularly; never tell anyone to stop taking medication
- Emotional support – feeling accepted in the church; not needing to be secretive or feel alone; access to counselling