HIV-positive religious leader believes in HIV/AIDS prevention

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Reverend Gideon Byamugisha had a daunting decision to make — either live in the shadows with his HIV or reveal his status to his congregation and colleagues. He could either use his experience to influence and educate his followers and others or he could keep his status a secret.

The Anglican priest found out he was positive only six months after his wife, Kellen died in 1991 from AIDS. He was 32 and she was 25. The Reverend said it took him some time to go for testing, but he knew what he was going to do if he tested positive; be honest.

According to an article from the Daily Nation, Gideon decided not to spend time figuring out how he contracted the virus, but instead focused on what he would do next.

He first revealed his status to Bishop Samuel Ssekkadde of the Church of Uganda, a member church of the Anglican Communion. To his surprise, Bishop Samuel commended his honesty and decided to support him by appointing him as director of a new HIV and AIDS awareness department in his diocese. This story and others were told in, A Guide to Leadership, a book by Titre Andre published in 2014 that featured several missiological Christian leaders.

Reverend Gideon Byamugisha stands for a portrait at the Namirembe Guest House in Kampala, Uganda. (Victor Grossling | The Media School)

Reverend Gideon became the first religious leader in Africa to go public about his positive status.

“Right now, you are talking to a man who the church has supported firmly, I really treasure the church here,” said Reverend Byamugisha. “At a time when many of the churches were throwing away their priests, putting them under the ground, the church here said, ‘We will support Gideon. We will give him all the care he needs and we will give him all the leadership he needs.'”

The news came as a shock to his congregation, but Gideon remained more supported than many others who had revealed their positive status. At that time, the disease was perceived as a consequence of a moral failing and that idea remains a poignant presumption of HIV stigmatization today.

“Because the disease had been perceived as a moral issue, as a disease you get when you misbehave, as a disease you get when you’re not following religious values, you know, because they had told us, you know, AIDS attacks homosexuals, AIDS attacks sex workers, it attacks truck drivers…so that is how Ugandan society, which is very religious, perceived the disease,” he said.

Four years after his first wife died, he felt the need to remarry Pamela, an HIV positive woman who had lost a spouse to AIDS like him, so that they could share a common experience and fight a common cause.

Thanks to the support of Bishop Samuel during a trying time, Reverend Gideon decided to have an open mind and inspire others, specifically religious leaders, to have an open mind as well. He was the first priest in Africa to mobilize people to use condoms at a time when other religious leaders remained silent or openly opposed this method, says Arthur Mugenyi, the national coordinator of Youth With A Vision Uganda, who decided to join Gideon in 2006 in the war against HIV/Aids in Uganda.

Reverend Gideon stands to the side of the podium reading along his Bible while a colleague delivers a sermon on a Sunday afternoon. (Victor Grossling | The Media School)

Eighty five percent of Ugandans are Christian and about half of them attend a Church of Uganda like Gideon. But other Christian denominations and other faiths have played an important role in the epidemic since the start.

Today there are many faith-based organizations (FBOs) involved in HIV/AIDS prevention that sponsor support groups, provide free testing and organize skills training workshops.

While many of these programs offer potentially life-changing support by encouraging people to get treatment and empowering them during times of despair, some health providers and non-government organizations (NGOs) raise objections to the approach FBOs take in dealing with the epidemic. These objections are most pronounced when religious faith becomes too involved in health and science related fields such as sexual education.

Dealing with AIDS requires a multi-sectoral approach, which means involving all sectors of society – governments, businesses, civil society organizations, communities and people living with HIV/AIDS. No one can be left out in this equation if maximum results are to be achieved.

Patrick Mwesigye, team leader of the Uganda Youth and Adolescent Health Forum (UYAHF), acknowledges that while religious leaders and FBOs play a positive role in in the fight against the HIV epidemic, they can work within the limitations of their faiths.

“They have a track of providing good services,” says Patrick. “There has been support from religious leaders, but most of their support is in line with abstinence, faithfulness. They lack knowledge in terms of what works.”

Reverend Gideon poses for a group photo with his church congregation at the Bishop Samuel Chapel in Kampala, Uganda. (Nadia Ibrahim | The Media School)

Abstinence and faithfulness are the A and B of the ABC initiative (Abstain from sex until marriage, Be faithful to your partner, or use Condoms if abstinence and fidelity are not practices) that Uganda pioneered in the 1990s under the Multi-Sector Approach. Since Christianity does not condone premarital sex and the Catholic Church rejects birth control of all kinds, condom use remains a point of contention, even though they have proven effective in decreasing the spread of HIV.

Charles Serwanga, a public health practitioner at the Interreligious Council of Uganda (IRCU), is also aware of the issue with FBOs and condom use.

“Even when we think condom can be useful in prevention of HIV and STIs, it is not easy…we cannot…because the Catholic Church is against the use of condoms. And our prevention package is now narrowed down to only A, B, even when we think that C is equally important,” he says.

While Rev. Gideon agrees with the ABC method, he said prevention of the virus is more than that. “It’s A, B, C, Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV (PMTCT), safe blood, safe circumcision, all those rules,” he says. “So by limiting our prevention message on one thing, sex, we have failed.”

The ABC method is for people at risk, said Gideon, and one of the things he has learned is that a message for leaders is important in HIV/AIDS prevention.

Reverend Gideon Byamugisha sits before his congregation at the Bishop Samuel Chapel in Kampala. Byamugisha lives on the premise and houses people from all over the world who study and intern for him. (Victor Grossling | The Media School)

“The programs in the church could become better if we solve that issue of having a leader focused message,” he says. “Because you see, when you have a leader focused message it becomes collective responsibility. But if you continue pointing fingers, ‘abstain, be faithful,’ it’s like the problem is the other one.”

It is the pointing of fingers by some religious leaders that inspired Rev. Gideon and others to form a network specifically for religious leaders in Africa who are living with or have been personally affected by HIV/AIDS (INERELA+). The goal was to help these leaders live openly so that they could become agents of change. INERELA+ now has about 13,000 members in 25 different countries.

Religious leaders play a unique role in moral and ethical guidance and education within their communities. Though religious leaders are not a key population for contracting the virus, they too need support since at the end of the day they are vulnerable because they are human.

Reverend Gideon and his wife Pamela (left), outside their home in Katooke District, Uganda. (Victor Grossling | The Media School)

“Religious leaders who are in positions of service, like me, who do things that threaten life… they need more support than blame,” says the Reverend. “My experience has been, every time you engage religious leaders empathetically, compassionately, choosing to blame less and support more, you see a changed experience.”

Reverend Gideon is not alone in advocating for engaging religious leaders in HIV/AIDS and sexual education. Members from Uganda Youth and Adolescent Health Forum (UYAHF) are also targeting religious and cultural leaders.

In May, UYAHF held a meeting that included dialogue between young adults and religious leaders about what young people need and where they feel disappointments.

Annah Kukundakwe, a program officer at UYAHF stressed the importance of sexual education in Uganda but acknowledged that it is difficult because of the government’s sex ed prohibition.

“In this country it is illegal to talk about comprehensive sexual education, and this is something if you don’t give information, especially about HIV, then it becomes a challenge,” says Annah. “Either you’re giving them (youth) an alternative (family planning) or you’re forcing them to have unprotected sex and get infected.”

In 1992, Gideon’s decision to reveal his HIV status wasn’t about trying to mobilize change, but simply to be honest. After a quarter century of having an open dialogue about HIV/AIDS he realizes that people can be stronger than the virus.

“What has AIDS told us?” asks Gideon. “AIDS has really told us that when people are loved, cared for, supported, the virus is at risk. It’s not the people who are at risk.”