Doug Willoughby believes there are HIV - positive people in many Christian congregations in his area. 'Most of them are terrified to disclose,' says the pastoral associate from St. Paul's on - the - Hill, Pickering, who is HIV-positive himself.
He knows about the prejudice and isolation faced by people with the diagnosis - even within their own communities of faith - because he has experienced it in his own life. After 23 years as a minister in another Christian denomination, Mr. Willoughby was asked to leave and ended up at St. Paul's on-the-Hill. Even at his new spiritual home, all was not smooth sailing. But not long after he arrived, the incumbent at the time asked him to preach. 'It was kind of overwhelming, because I never thought anybody would do that again,' says Mr. Willoughby. 'I've been on the preaching staff for the last seven-and-a-half years.'
The Rev. Canon Cheryl Palmer and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Fleck welcome Margaret Auma, director of Springs Ministries, an AIDS ministry in Kisumu, Kenya. On Aug. 10, St. Clement, Englinton, hosted several visitors from Kenya who were in Toronto for the International AIDS Conference.
Mr. Willoughby is working to help others living with HIV/AIDS feel less alone. With a ministry development grant from the Trent-Durham Episcopal area, he is organising an HIV/AIDS Ministry Support Group at St. Paul's. 'What I am looking to do is have the church open one day a week for anybody in the Durham region,' he says. 'There's not a whole lot of support in the region. I'd like to begin an HIV/AIDS healing service as well, probably once a month. In the fall, I am running an HIV 101 course, which talks about the basics of what HIV is, what AIDS means, what's the difference, the progression from HIV infection to AIDS, how you contract HIV, how it is not transmitted.'
He is already providing informal advice to congregations that are dealing with the issue. He received a call from a pastor who said that they have a six-year-old girl in the parish who has AIDS and the congregation doesn't know what to do. 'I said: What do you mean what do you do?' recalls Mr. Willoughby. 'You treat her like any other six-year-old. The child needs to have a normal life.'
Mr. Willoughby's experiences reflect the ambivalence that faith groups, including Anglicans, have had historically toward the issue of HIV/AIDS. 'In Toronto, it has been a struggle for a lot of communities to be involved directly in HIV/AIDS issues,' says the Rev. Canon Douglas Graydon, co-ordinator of Chaplaincy Services for the Diocese of Toronto. 'There is the ongoing perception that it is not a priority for local congregations, other than to raise money to send to Africa - which is fine, it's really important. But churches that have a productive working relationship with local AIDS service organisations are very few and far between.
'I think that's the leftover from the early days of HIV/AIDS, when churches were just terrified of getting involved with the issue and didn't know how to deal with all of the sexual issues that are tied to HIV/AIDS. So they just stayed out of it. In all my years in HIV/AIDS work, I don't think I have ever experienced organized religion being able to work collaboratively and with great advocacy in this area because of all the so-called implications.'
There are signs that this may be changing, however. For instance, the diocese's Chaplaincy Committee recently entered into a formal partnership with the Philip Aziz Centre, a non-profit home hospice in Toronto that provides practical, physical, emotional, and spiritual support to people living with HIV/AIDS. The diocese has committed to grant the Philip Aziz Centre $15,000 a year for two years for salary support for a chaplain who will provide spiritual and religious care. Canon Graydon says that one of the Centre's unique services is a spiritual support group for women living with HIV and AIDS.
Even at the start of the AIDS epidemic, there were individual Anglicans willing to get involved. The Teresa Group, an organisation that provides practical and emotional support to children and families affected by HIV/AIDS, is an example of what a few concerned, committed individuals can accomplish. In the early 1990s, Penelope Holeton, then a member of Grace Church on - the - Hill, wanted to help children in Toronto living with HIV/AIDS. After a meeting with the head of the HIV/AIDS department at the Hospital for Sick Children to find out what was needed, she gathered a group of volunteers that set out to fill the gap between services provided by hospitals and what families could do at home. The Teresa Group had been born, with a first board of directors comprised almost entirely of Anglicans.
Mercy Chidi, program director at Ripples Orphanage in Meru, Kenya, examines children's clothing donated by St. Clement, Eglinton. Ms. Chidi visited St. Clement's during her stay in Toronto for the International AIDS Conference. Photographs courtesy of the
Rev. Canon Alice Medcof
The volunteers drove children to and from doctors' appointments, changed diapers, sterilized bottles and prepared formula, bathed and dressed the children, assisted around the home with shopping and household chores, and, perhaps most importantly, took the time to listen. These days, the organisation receives government funding and has expanded its programming to provide support groups for children living in HIV-positive families, as well as for HIV-positive pregnant mothers, and mothers of new-borns and toddlers.
Ms. Holeton, who is now a member of the Church of the Redeemer, Toronto, looks with satisfaction at what the group has achieved in the last 15 years. 'Some of the children that I knew who were born with HIV are now in high school and one has even graduated from high school,' she says. 'And there are several moms who were HIV-positive in 1990 who are still going along, some of them a bit fragile, but quite a lot of them doing quite well.'
Many Anglican congregations also show concern for those struggling with the epidemic in other parts of the world. This year during Lent, St. Clement, Eglinton, initiated its new 'AIDS relief in Africa' project, raising $20,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. On Aug. 10, the congregation held a reception for grandmothers from Kenya who are in Toronto for the International AIDS Conference and the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Grandmothers' Gathering, which culminated in a march through the streets of Toronto on Aug. 13.
'In some villages, the whole middle generation is gone,' explains the Rev. Canon Alice Medcof, who helped organize the reception. 'Anybody who bears children or who goes to work to earn money is dead. The only ones left are the grandmothers and the kids. And so it's the grandmothers who are raising the next generation. One 70-year old woman may be looking after 25 children - her grandchildren, grandnieces, grandnephews. It's a heart wrenching story, because they are at the bottom of society, they get no aid, no education money, nothing.' St. Clement's is sending the women home with a quantity of children's clothing for an orphanage in Meru, Kenya.
Much has been done; much is still left to do. 'Twenty years ago, you couldn't raise this issue without a lot of conflict,' says Canon Graydon. 'Nowadays, I can say fairly confidently that just about every faith group would deal with an HIV-positive person in a fair, open and supportive way. However, we still have a long way to go when it comes to churches stepping up to the plate and being advocates and agents of social change around HIV/AIDS.'
Anglicans who would like to learn more about responding to HIV/AIDS at home and abroad are invited to attend the workshop 'Responding to AIDS' at the Outreach Conference on Oct. 14.
Article from The Diocese of Toronto by Henrieta Paukov