Dimapur | November 30
HIV-related stigma, often a by-product of religious mores, is seen to be at the heart of many failed efforts – both religion and secular – to respond to HIV, particularly to overcome the silence and denial surrounding the existence of HIV in communities.
Many interventions, whether for HIV prevention, care, support or treatment, have also been less than effective due to HIV-related stigma and discrimination.
Against this backdrop, in 2001, when the world viewed with a jaundiced eye at everything allied to HIV, Tuensang Town Chang Baptist Church (TTCBC) took up the ‘damned’ yoke, and committed itself by responding to HIV and making it a gospel imperative.
Chang Baptist Church was not alone. Initially, in an alliance, Baptist churches of Sangtam, Yimchunger, Ao and the Khiamniungan tribes also took up the challenge to make HIV mission a part of their ministry.
At this stage, Tuensang district was already suffering from the onslaught of the HIV pandemic.
“It was the worst hit town by HIV, not only in Nagaland but even in the country. Incidence among antenatal mothers was as high as 8% only next to Namakal which was considered the highest in India,” recalled Rev Chingmak Kejong, who heads the Eleutheros Christian Society (ECS). He is the man responsible for bringing the churches together to tackle the HIV endemic.
Rev Chingmak realized that rather than dealing with the virus, ECS had to confront the Church first.
“This, we felt would soften the rough edges and numb the excitement of HIV, which we felt, was counterproductive and further alienating people with HIV from accessing help,” he said.
But it was not at all an easy task in making the Churches HIV/AIDS friendly.
BREAKING THE BARRIERS
“It was very tough to break the barriers. The congregation said this is not Church work. That HIV/AIDS infected people are sinners, they disobeyed and they got infected and so they deserved it,” said Rev H Sangkap Chang, who was the pastor of Chang Baptist Church.
The pastor had to convince the deacon board, the trustee members, the different committees, mission boards, elders and then finally the congregation.
“Initially, even the pulpit was not allowed to be used for speaking about HIV/AIDS. I had to use the floor below. I was even told that there won’t be any yearly increment on my salary if I worked with the HIV people,” Rev Sangkap said.
As the saying goes that patience is a virtue, the congregation gradually became willing partners.
“What eventually became more and more apparent was that the concern shown by the Church not only made HIV more acceptable but also most importantly HIV seemed a normal disease,” Rev Chingmak said of the outcome.
“People with HIV began to come out in the open and access services. The environment of acceptance enabled families to accept the person and see beyond the disease. But most importantly the ownership of the issue by the Church was the most important outcome of this entire process of community hand-holding,” he pointed out.
All the pastors of these churches served as consultant counselors. There were times when the Church even buried people with HIV disowned and abandoned by the family.
Then the congregation started giving. Rev Sangkap remembers how even the poorest Church members, in their earnest concern for the people living with HIV/AIDS, came forward to donate a cup of sticky rice or a bottle of kerosene, the only commodities they could afford to give.
The Church closely worked with the Nagaland State AIDS Control Society (NSACS). Realizing that the fund granted by National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) through NSACS was not enough, the Church even mobilized its own resources by chipping in 10% of the amount given by NACO.
Once the Church intervened, the rate of HIV prevalence came down drastically. By 2005, Tuensang, which was on the top of the list of the highest prevalence, came down to third- after Dimapur and Kohima. Some months later, it again dipped down farther to fourth after Mokokchung (As per NSACS record of the ICTC), said Rev Chingmak.
STANDING ON ITS OWN
In 2010, with the launching of the new 4th phase by NACO, the government closed down all DICs (Drop-in-Centres) attached to the Church and CCCs (Community Care Centres) funded by NACO. The move by the government was to gradually streamline the services to the health facilities of the state and to make the hospitals the primary care giver.
For most NGOs in Nagaland, this news of closedown of the DICs came as a bad decision; primarily because people with HIV were not prepared to face the open space, since stigma was still apparent.
Despite this move, Tuensang Town Baptist Church (Chang) resolved to continue to run the DIC fully funded by Church. Despite no funding by the government since 2010, the Church continues to manage the programme on its own till today.
The DIC even runs a fully functional care and counseling service for people with HIV and even an independent testing unit to cater to the Church members. The Church has also included World Aids Day, special candle light service, HIV prayer nights, special camps for children with HIV etc. in its working calendar. Every year, the Church also reserves one devotional worship service as PLHA’s prayer day.
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” Mathew 18: 12-13