AIDS Knocks at the Church Door
Interview with pastor of the Church of Evangelical Christian Baptists in Poltava, Oleh OVSII and his wife Larysa about the spread of AIDS in Ukraine and their work to counteract the disease.
The AIDS pandemic in Ukraine is heading toward catastrophic proportions. Experts confirm that if nothing is done about it, in a few years every family in Ukraine will have members who are HIV-infected. This hazard is being recognized at all levels, by government and civil society organizations which are sounding the alarm bells. Everyone understands that TV ads about ways of becoming infected, or the spread of free condoms among the young or sterilized needles for drug addicts are not going to markedly change the situation.
Experts stress that a return to the practice of Christian morality in relations between adults can help stop the spread of this scourge of the 21st Century. The role of religion and the churches in this is undisputed.
But are believers themselves ready for this “war”? How do Christian communities regard HIV-infected people? Is it possible to be cured of AIDS? Answers to these questions are provided by our interviewees, pastor of the Evangelical Christian Baptist Church of Poltava Region, OLEH OVSII and his wife LARYSA. This couple actively raises awareness about the problem of HIV-AIDS with Christians of Poltava Region and engages in HIV-prevention work with the young people of the area.
- Please tell us about when you first realized the extent of the problem of AIDS in Ukraine, and what led you to raise this issue among Christians.
- Larysa OVSII: A few years ago we started to understand that there are a lot of HIV-positive persons among young people. Some of our friends even died of AIDS. We began to realize what a widespread problem it is. But it’s only one year now that we started to concretely work in our churches with this issue. We were motivated by a painful case. Someone among our acquaintances, a young girl 16 years of age, became ill with HIV-AIDS. This occurred through relations with a man who was her first partner. Sadly, even now no one in her family knows that she is HIV-infected.
I would like to give a few statistics about this disease that speak for themselves:
- Today, Ukraine is ranked number one as the country in which AIDS is spreading at the highest rate.
- Every day in Ukraine, 40 to 60 people are infected with HIV, and eight die of AIDS.
- As of January, 2007, 121,000 persons have been registered as HIV-positive. These are official statistics; according to experts, this figure should be multiplied by ten. Thus, the realistic number is closer to 1,210,000.
- The average age of HIV-infected people in Ukraine is 15 to 29 years.
These statistics are really shocking. Do you find support and understanding among Christians for this work you are doing?
- Oleh OVSII: Like with every issue, people have various reactions. There are people who have understood that you can’t hide from the problem of AIDS in a church. AIDS is the plague of the 21st Century. The church needs to be ready to help those who are HIV-positive. And for those who are still healthy, we can tell them the truth about “free” sex and in this way save them from disease. It would be very good if every believer became concerned about this issue.
It’s a real shame that many people still hide in their hearts a barrier toward HIV-positive persons. They regard them as someone who is dangerous. Sometimes you even hear in church that HIV-infected people should be kept in a separate location. These false stereotypes must be eradicated.
- In your opinion, why do religious people so often take this negative approach?
- Oleh OVSII: Because people often don’t understand that God has placed this issue before them. The church can do a lot to help HIV-positive people. Whenever some disastrous event occurs, believers should transform themselves to meet needs. When there was war or the Holodomor (man-made famine in Ukraine, 1932-33), the faithful took action to help those who were suffering. If Christians today start to tell their friends and acquaintances the truth about AIDS, a lot will change in our society.
- Do you know of specific instances in which HIV-positive persons have been discriminated against in the church?
- Larysa OVSII: Unfortunately, these things do happen, and it’s all because people are ignorant. Lack of information often hinders them from freely interacting with HIV-positive persons. For example, there are religious people who are afraid to shake hands with someone who is HIV-positive; there are those who are even afraid to sit by them. We know of instances where people were barred from Holy Communion because it was thought that they could infect others. Again, this is all due to lack of information.
- And from your personal experience, how does society react to HIV-positive children? Presumably the numbers of such children are increasing every day?
- Larysa OVSII: Generally people don’t know the status of children. I think that’s for the best, as at the moment our society unfortunately is not ready to fully accept people who are HIV-positive. I believe that these children have every right to associate with children of their age, and freely attend school and Sunday School. Because in actual fact they are not dangerous to others in any way. In fact, it’s the opposite; HIV-positive children are sooner infected by illnesses and colds than are other children. So for them it’s more dangerous to associate with other children.
I believe that to isolate children is absolutely inhumane and abnormal. And from a biblical viewpoint, it is totally inappropriate. All of this needs to be explained to people. Of course the first reaction a parent has when they learn that their child is playing alongside an HIV-positive child is a negative one. Survival instincts come into play as parents want to protect their children. But when you speak with them openly, most of them change their attitudes, come to understand that their children are quite safe in such circumstances, and also realize, in fact, that they themselves could end up in the same situation.
- It seems that there has been no case recorded in the world in which a person was cured of AIDS. Is this true?
- Oleh OVSII: I also have never heard of any case in which a person was cured of AIDS. And when we hear such stories, we know that this is due to a supposed healer advertising him or herself. But I want to mention an example from the Holy Scriptures. We know that in Jesus’s day, there were lepers who were healed. In other words, if God has it in his plan to heal a particular person, this can occur. But to claim that one can be cured of AIDS at this or that place is a big mistake.
- Larysa OVSII: When HIV-positive people learn about their status, on an emotional level they begin to feel they have problems with their health. With time they calm down and start to lead a healthy way of life. Because their health improves, some may believe they are cured. This belief may arise because medicines are working well for them. We generally recommend that people come in and repeat testing. But on the whole, these people who are sure they are cured don’t want to do this. This is a real shame because timely assistance from doctors can significantly improve the quality and length of life of such infected people. People on antiretroviral therapy can strengthen their immune system and live a normal life. But when a person goes to a doctor too late, all chances are lost.
- How many Christian communities in Poltava Region provide services for HIV-positive people? Is there some social or spiritual assistance offered to them?
- Oleh OVSII: At the moment, this is the case with just a few. But we see that leaders of various religions are understanding the scale of the HIV-AIDS problem in our country. This is little by little starting to be discussed in the churches. We believe that soon there will be concrete steps taken in every church to open a department which will help HIV-positive people. In other words, “positive” people need first of all spiritual healing, not just physical.
- What have you been able to accomplish this year specifically, or in what ways have you been able to affect these sad statistics about the rise of HIV-AIDS? Do you work only with clients who come to you, or do you also do preventative work among other populations?
- Larysa OVSII: Normally we don’t confine ourselves to work in the church. We started our work in late November of last year. That’s when we gave our first lecture on HIV-AIDS prevention at a school in Poltava. We were impressed by the reactions of the older pupils. They asked a lot of questions, and at the end of the meeting they wrote down some surprising things. According to them, most parents never talked to them about sexual relations. And those who did bring up the topic, were convinced that sex before marriage is normal and that condoms are a defense against all diseases. The students thanked us for our presentation about the effects of sexual promiscuity and asked us to come for another meeting. We visited almost all the classes of higher grades at the school, and then we were asked to other high schools and then to technical schools. In this way the truth about AIDS reached over 1,500 young people in our city.
In December, we carried out an initiative for people with infants who are HIV-positive in Poltava Region. We decided to assist mothers with HIV-positive children who were not able to adequately provide their children with nourishment. These children can only have formula milk; they can’t have mother’s milk. We bought good quality food and pampers as well. Considering that information about the home address of HIV-positive infants is confidential, we took all the packages to the Poltava AIDS Center. The center then distributed them to those who needed them. We understand that this is on a small scale. But the Center said that, even so, this was the first assistance offered from churches.
Throughout the year we organized various charitable activities and enjoyable events for HIV-positive pre-school children. We also started working with HIV-positive children who are living in orphanages.
When needed, we give consultation to young couples who plan to marry. We also provide consultation for people who go for medical care to the AIDS Center, or just provide support in general, whether on a spiritual, social or moral level. Maybe that’s not big help but I’ve understood that for sick people it’s not always important to do something big. For them, attention is much more important than some material help. When people ill with AIDS see that the church and society embrace them, and that this is not done for purposes of PR or to show how good someone is, then they react really positively. They open their hearts and realize that there is reason to live. They are assured that they are needed by someone, that they matter.
- You mentioned that you give presentations on HIV-AIDS prevention to young people of Poltava. What is there reaction when they learn the truth about AIDS? Do you think their sexual habits change?
- Oleh OVSII: These presentations involve a lot of game-like activities. Of course at the beginning we provide them with statistics - which are very frightening to them by the way. Then we talk about how to avoid getting infected. We do this through games and role play so that it comes across at their level. They give good responses, these children sitting at their desks - the same as would directors of educational institutions. Some of them hear for the first time that sexual promiscuity is not normal. That’s because they get a different message from mass media. And parents basically don’t have time to talk to their children about this. Unfortunately, only in some schools in Poltava did we come across children from homes where they receive a normal, moral upbringing.
- In your opinion, what concrete steps can be taken by believers to stop the spread of AIDS in Ukraine?
- Larysa OVSII: Firstly, it’s the obligation of each person who knows some important information not to hide it. If my heart is breaking because I know of the terrible fate that has befallen some people, I can not remain indifferent, just sitting on my hands. And one wishes there were more such caring people. For example, when you speak of AIDS in the church, some people really take these matters to heart. The biggest response is from older women. They don’t just say nice words; they are truly ready to give, even from their small pensions.
One older lady in the space of a few months literally actually gave 300 hryvnia. She said it’s from her pension, and her pension is 450 hryvnia per month. To give such a sum from such a small pension I believe is an act of a real hero. And they are ready to give because they understand that they are saving their grandchildren. This money goes for anti-AIDS packets for HIV-positive women giving birth, for infants’ food, for toys for HIV-positive children, etc. One of course would like to inform not just those in churches and schools but also those in military academies, in prisons, etc. We believe that God will give us the opportunity to expand our work on this mission.
- Oleh OVSII: Every Christian knows the beautiful words written in the Holy Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Today, such neighbors with HIV-status are very many. Every Christian should be conscious of their environment, see such people and bring them the good news that they matter, that we need them. I know of actual instances where believers involved themselves in the lives of such people with HIV-status, and these people were able to live many more years and were happy. They were able to find meaning in their lives. These people were not abandoned. In other words, the church did what it should do in a concrete way. Also, I wish that every believer would understand that they are called to save those who are condemned to death.
Interview by Olha Tarenenko
Poltava, 7 November 2007