Willie E. Hucks II: Please share a bit about Adventist AIDS International Ministry, as well as your own background in working with the HIV/ AIDS epidemic.
Oscar Giordano: My wife Eugenia, also a medical doctor, and I worked in the refugee camps in Congo. Then we worked in other regions of Africa for many years, before moving to South Africa with this new assignment for the HIV/AIDS Africa office, which we now call AAIM, Adventist AIDS International Ministry. We have been based in Johannesburg since October 2003. The General Conference voted on this office in May 2002, and we received the call to go to Johannesburg.
WH: Do you have an idea of how many people are participating with you in this project throughout all the churches?
OG: We don’t know precisely how many people are involved; but we know from the reports that there are thousands. So, we already have fourteen countries active, a fifteenth country that is about to start, Zimbabwe. We have many, many churches that are reaching people—people both within the church and in the surrounding communities.
WH: What motivated you to start this ministry?
OG: The HIV epidemic has been around for the last twenty-five years. The church felt the need to create an office specifically to focus on this issue. We tried to trace the actions of our churches, institutions, or agencies back from the beginning of the epidemic, and we found that, since 1985, there have been actions in trying to help mitigate the impact of this epidemic—but these are fragmented actions. So most of the churches kept silent, and generally people didn’t speak or preach about it. But, of course, we have a strong presence in the communities. Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) has programs in the communities. But the issue remained: How do we help the churches cope with the epidemic? How do we break the silence, break that stigma, break the isolation and discrimination—even in our institutions—where sometimes we have found people were fired because they are HIV positive?
WH: Paint a picture for us of what you see on a daily basis in your ministry to those with HIV or AIDS, especially since many of us have never dealt with AIDS patients on a regular basis.
OG: Usually the people we find in Africa who have been touched by this epidemic don’t have enough food or clean water, nor do many of them have anybody to care for them when they get very weak. This is when the support groups that we train come into play to provide that support. Many of these people have been rejected by their families and chased away from home. Church members come to them—to become their friends, to establish a relationship. The book of James talks about the importance of doing something for the person, not just saying “I’ll pray for you.” That person needs food, that person needs covering in the winter, that person needs clothing, that person needs company. Let us not forget that it is estimated from surveys that about twenty percent of our membership in southern Africa is HIV positive, ten percent in eastern Africa, and four to five percent in western Africa.
WH: In terms of meeting the challenges personto- person, are you able to make a difference? The challenge must seem too big to handle at times.
OG: Of course HIV/AIDS is a big issue, and for a big continent like Africa, it is not an easy task, but we feel this is a call from God. Looking back at what all the other organizations have done, we decided we needed a clear action plan. We needed to see what our church could do with the limited financial resources we have. Jesus approached people who were suffering on a one-to-one basis; what Jesus offered the people is exactly what the people today need—love and compassion. They also need to know of the possibility of eternal life. Salvation is much more important than anything else for a person who is suffering. Actually, many people suffer more from the heavy load of guilt, and we have experiences with people that we have found while visiting homes and visiting villages that when you ask them, “What is your relationship with God?” they will say, “I’ve asked for forgiveness.” They don’t focus on walking again or having good health or even wanting to be with their families. They want forgiveness. And when we see Jesus Christ ministering to the sick, the forgiveness of sins comes first before the physical healing.
WH: Does your ministry focus solely on the spiritual aspects of their existence?
OG: No. We have to do much more for them. For example, we found a group of people—thirty Adventists in Nairobi, Kenya. The government was providing free treatment, but they were not doing well physically. So, I asked them, “You’re all being treated, but why are you not recovering?” The answer was simple: “We don’t have money to buy food.” Treatment without food is a very bad prescription. It doesn’t work. So, how can we provide food for them? We don’t have the money to provide food, but we can create small businesses for them, small income-generating activities. So, we started income-generating activities such as sewing workshops, bakeries, beehives and honey harvesting, and food gardens. When these young ladies who are HIV positive come to the sewing workshop, it’s not only that they are learning skills, but it’s being with other women in the same situation; it’s the interchange, the relationship, that brings them back to life.
WH: Do you find that the pastors are more willing to preach about these topics, and teachers are more willing to teach about these topics, and parents are willing to talk about topics like AIDS at home?
OG: Since we have been pushing this agenda, there is a change. And we have provided wonderful materials like the one used by Family Ministries on human sexuality that is translated in different languages. We have given out those materials and we have a special chapter in our training where we talk to the pastors, elders, and members; and yes, there is a change. There are programs going on in several churches, but still, when we think of the four and a half million members we have in Africa and more than sixteen thousand five hundred churches, we see that even with what we have done, much more needs to be done. And then, don’t forget that HIV/AIDS is not only a problem in Africa. We have Asia and the Caribbean Islands, we have HIV everywhere, and there are countries in which the disease is more prevalent. When we are invited to talk in the church and institutions in the United States, people say, “Wow!” Earlier this year, my wife spoke at a university in the United States. So many of the students came to her saying, “We didn’t know about this. We need more talk about this in our churches and university.” There is so much denial everywhere. If you keep silent, you are working for the devil. You are helping this situation to get worse because nobody knows, nobody’s aware. People don’t think much about it, don’t know much about it. But if you talk, you break that silence, you break that ignorance, you empower the people, the youth, the children. They can learn how to say “no” and avoid risky behavior.
WH: What do you say to the pastor who feels it is more important to talk about spiritual issues like overcoming sin and dealing with temptation rather than talk about HIV and AIDS?
OG: When we look at the whole picture of this problem and we remember that our relationship with God at the very beginning was broken by sin, then we see that HIV and AIDS is a consequence of that broken relationship. Now, how can we work in a way that addresses this problem? We have to help people re-establish that relationship with God. I would say to the pastor, “Think of what Jesus would do when that person comes through the door of that church—that person who is infected with HIV.” Now, we think, how can we help that person re-create that relationship with God again? By rejecting them? By disfellowshipping them? By pushing that person out of the church or standing up and sitting far away from that person and leaving them alone in the church, embarrassed and ashamed? What would Jesus do? Many people have HIV, but not because they have sinned. Today, fifty-nine percent of the infected in Africa are women, and the majority of those women didn’t do anything wrong. They found themselves infected after their husband died or the husband went to the hospital, and they got tested and they found themselves positive. What about the children who are infected? They didn’t do anything wrong. So, there are millions of people who didn’t do anything wrong. And even the ones who made the wrong decision—who are we to judge them? This is what I would say to the pastors: Be compassionate. Our church has to be recognized as a church that is open to the people who are suffering, a refuge of hope and healing.
WH: A refuge of hope and healing?
OG: Yes, a center. We are promoting centers of hope and healing: for prevention of infection, after-infection care, home-based care, care of orphans, care of all kinds, support groups, to prevent the spread, to reduce the vulnerability in neighborhoods. For example, women, children, grandmothers are very vulnerable. Grandmothers are getting infected today because they are completely ignorant, they don’t know how to protect themselves, they are unaware that their daughters are infected, and they are getting infected at the age of sixty-five or seventy. So, we need a lot of education in our churches to provide care and support for those infected by the disease and provide the socio-economic and human part of the healing. Also, we are establishing our churches as training centers for the youth. Our youth are idle and idleness in youth is a good opportunity for the devil. But when you train them how to be carpenters, masons, welders, how to bake bread, then training centers in our churches become another great thing. This is a very comprehensive ministry because AIDS has many faces, and we need to fight all of those things with a spiritual effort combined with treatment and with what medical science can offer. We are creating voluntary counseling and testing centers in our churches calling them Adventist Center for Care and Support (ACCS). We have one beautiful ACCS in Nairobi Central church in Nairobi and also one just built in Swaziland. We like to call them Adventist Centers for Care and Support because care and support are what the people need.
WH: What can you share with our readers who wonder, “What can I do?” Let’s face it, a lot of our readers don’t know anyone who has AIDS. Or, perhaps they say, “That problem is in Africa,” or “That problem is with the homosexual community.” What can our readers actually do; how can they help?
OG: We have published for east African countries a magazine that is exclusively dedicated to HIV, and recently the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division published their magazine—and we have contributed all of the articles on HIV and AIDS. We discuss what the church can do and also what individuals can do for those who have HIV/AIDS, especially for those to whom they give care. We address how the church in Africa needs to understand the crisis and organize itself with support groups. That, indeed, is a concept we need to have in all of our churches. What usually happens when we go to church? We shake hands with the person at the door and they say, “Happy Sabbath.” That is the routine for most of us. Now what if we say “Happy Sabbath” with our right hand, and with our left hand we bring a plastic sack with some fruit and/or nonperishables? And then in the front, on the platform, we have this basket where we put all those things. We go out that Sabbath afternoon, taking the youth of the church to an orphanage, hospice, hospital, or home and give some homebased care. We don’t need lots of money. We just need a willing heart. That’s all.
WH: And that’s the gospel in Acts chapters two and four.
OG: Exactly, this is our ministry.
WH: Thank you so much.