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Addressing HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean

Rev. Serna Samuel tests a woman for HIV on Caribbean Regional HIV Testing Day.
Rev. Serna Samuel tests a woman for HIV on Caribbean Regional HIV Testing Day.

By Serna Samuel

The Reverend Serna Samuel, United Methodist Women Regional Missionary for the Caribbean, provides a glimpse into her work on HIV/AIDS.

Thirty-one years ago, the first cases of AIDS were identified and labeled as a clinical syndrome by a doctor in the United States. Since then, over 60 million people have been infected with the HIV virus globally, and approximately 30 million people have died of AIDS. Today, about 42 million live with HIV/AIDS worldwide and 7, 000 more people contract the virus everyday—nearly 300 every hour. 

Women constitute about 50 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. These are United Methodist Women members—who know United Methodist Women by-laws by heart, who organize United Methodist events, women we visit and advocate with for causes worldwide.

Although HIV/AIDS is in our midst, as soon as we recognize it, we reject it. Persons living with HIV/AIDS who have the courage to share their status are quickly renounced. They find themselves isolated, berated, denied real help, and re-traumatized that often leave them vulnerable to infections and death.

The above statistics and anecdotes is the story of a young woman I met through my work on HIV/AIDS as United Methodist Women Regional Missionary in the Caribbean. This young lady found the courage to share her status with her Methodist pastor, who then berated her and ceased association with her, even preaching a sermon at church directed at her. Today, this young lady has passed on to be with the Lord. Her story is a haunting reminder of what church isn’t.

Serna’s journey working on HIV/AIDS issues

My work on HIV/AIDS first began in 2002, prior to becoming a Regional Missionary. I worked as a counselor in the Ministry of Health in my country, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. An individual living with HIV/AIDS complained about the stigma and discrimination they encountered in the church. In response I decided to do my thesis on “The Response of the Churches in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to HIV/AIDS.”

My findings were that although efforts have been made by some churches to address some of the physical, emotional and psychological needs of persons with HIV, there was insufficient knowledge, information and activities in the church in relation to Persons Living with HIV/AIDS. 

The story of the Samaritan woman and her encounter with Jesus is the theological foundation that undergirds my activities and dictates the agenda as the Regional Missionary in the Caribbean. In the story Jesus met a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He initiated a conversation with her by asking for a drink of water. The conversation that followed placed the outcast Samaritan at the root of the mission movement carried out by numerous women. She ran to her village that rejected, marginalized, and alienated her to invite others to, “come see a man who told to me everything I have ever done.”

The Samaritan woman, because Jesus could have helped her, had to face the reality that multiple relationships would not satisfy her quest in life. Similarly, as Regional Missionary in the Caribbean, one has to focus on the reality of the region that HIV/AIDS is with us.

The Caribbean region has the highest HIV prevalence in the world, second only to Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2009, HIV/AIDs was the leading cause of death among 25-44 year olds in the region. Women account for approximately half of all infected in the region, and adolescent women have markedly higher prevalence than their male counterparts. Our mission as people of faith calls us to look beyond the high numbers; it propels us to encounter the ones who are marginalized, discriminated, stigmatized and ostracized.

In my Regional Missionary work, this harsh reality of HIV/AIDS in our midst motivates me to cultivate and foster a relationship, to strengthen and sustain networks, to establish and maintain partnerships and to create and implement leadership development and capacity-building opportunities to enable and to empower women, children and youths who are treated as modern-day lepers into being recipients of God’s grace and by telling others of this grace.

Regional Testing Day in St. Vincent and Grenadines

The Caribbean Regional HIV Testing Day is held annually on June 29. Throughout the Caribbean, the initiative offers a free an HIV test so people can know their status.

Regional Testing Day is one of the many campaigns instituted by the Caribbean Broadcasting Media Partnership (CBMP). CBMP is the regional action arm of the Global Media AIDS Initiative (GMAI), born as a response to the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call to action in 2004.

CBMP broadcasters deliver life-saving messages to help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS and fight related stigma and discrimination. They cover a total estimated population of some 40 million people. This represents, by far, the single largest mobilization of media response to any social issue in the region.

As an HIV certified tester I was invited by the Ministry of Health to help test and counsel for the day in 2012. We tested four hundred (400) people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines—all but one tested negative.

There were times I counselled persons whom I tested. Some issues raised were:

  • Women experience difficulty in getting their partners tested for HIV because they believe that if their girlfriends or wives have tested negative, they do not need to do the test.
  • Women are unable to negotiate condom use because they are accused of being unfaithful if they do.
  • Girlfriends or wives experienced abuse: verbal, physical, economical and psychological.
  • Many women are unemployed.

I reported these issues to the relevant personnel in order to facilitate the necessary programs to address these issues.

Serna’s Concluding Thoughts

Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, it behooves the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA) to change the statistics and the face of HIV in the Caribbean. There is a great need to continue to work on issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, poverty and unwanted pregnancies. Therefore the MCCA needs not only to ‘break the silence’ about HIV/AIDS, but also about sex, sexual behaviors and the unequal relationships between men and women.

For the past three years, I have facilitated various activities, and workshops on HIV/AIDS, stigma and discrimination, and domestic violence. Participants in these trainings respond in positive ways, but there is great need to intensify this crucial work.

We must continue equipping and training clergy, laity (in the entire MCCA membership), MCCA Women and others to conduct Voluntary Counseling on HIV for young people and children. It is paramount that the young people and children be involved in whatever training and work that take place in the churches. It therefore means that deliberate efforts should be placed on this population.

The Motto of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas is, “The love of God constrains us.” It is the love of Christ in us our hearts that will propel us to make a positive difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters.

Serna Samuel is a Regional Missionary in the Caribbean. 

Last Updated: 04/07/2014

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