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Jamaica: fighting HIV stigma in church

November 2011

Reverend Stephen Henry stands in his church

Reverend Stephen Henry, who is working to transform the church's attitude to HIV

In Jamaica, high levels of homophobia and ignorance about HIV mean that stigma and discrimination continue to hinder prevention and treatment.

Jamaican society is deeply religious and many Christian denominations exist in the majority Protestant congregations. In spite of their number and influence, the church-going population and church policy itself hasn't responded as well as it could to increasing numbers of people affected by HIV and AIDS.

Reverend Stephen Henry is the minister for three churches in Central West Jamaica. He is part of a growing number of church leaders who are trying to transform the church and its response to HIV.

Transforming attitudes towards HIV

'I was reluctant to be in the same area with persons… all I know is I was ignorant… Fear crippled me, and not knowing how to interact with these people.'

Christian Aid partner UTCWI are providing training for clergy and faith leaders like Reverend Henry, allowing them to both challenge and change the church's attitude to HIV from within.

Reverend Delroy Harris was also trained by UTCWI: 'If society doesn't show love and care, the person is going to turn to the church.

'It's at the point now where some persons who are HIV positive no longer want to come to the church because they feel that the church people are rejecting them. Now we need to change that.'

When people fear they will be rejected for being HIV positive, they are less likely to get tested, find out their status and get the medication they need. Fighting stigma saves lives.

Working with church leaders

Working with church leaders also has a huge multiplying effect: those receiving training pass on knowledge to their congregations and the community.

In Reverend Harris' church the changes have been profound:

'We had persons that were HIV positive sharing with us [one] Sunday morning... the high point for me... was when I pronounced the benediction, afterwards, the same people who had a problem with me doing the session, lined up to embrace the persons living with HIV with tears in their eyes.'

A parishioner, Viviene Reid, added: 'I looked at myself and I said "you know, I'm going to take a different road."

'I was the first person that went up there and I hug her up and I talk and I change and the next forum they had I decided to go and do the test.'



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