By Donald Schell
Traveling in Africa with my wife, Ellen Schell, the International Programs Director of the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA www.thegaia.org) last fall, I had the privilege of meeting the Rev. Fletcher Kaiya, General Secretary of the Baptist Convention of Malawi, enjoying tea in his home, and watching a performance by the chorus of AIDS orphans that he and his wife are raising as their own children. It’s through the GAIA connection that I saw this note from Fletcher Kaiya to Bill Rankin, Ellen’s boss and President of Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance.
I was recently on the radio with an Assemblies of God pastor, an official from National AIDS Commission and also from Ministry of Health. Our on-the-spot-audience included those that were HIV positive. They had no kind words for the church because they said there is rampant stigma and discrimination, made in secret innuendos, yet preaching the opposite. Some of the audience thought as far as stigma is concerned, the church has done nothing. I could also understand their anger and frustration having been targets of these bad habits by so-called “God’s people.” We did not try to defend the church but we cleared the name of Jesus as having been compassionate and kind. If His followers are doing this to those living positively [with HIV], then it is a gross misrepresentation of the Master they claim to represent.
Thank God that others called in and saved our faces by reporting that the majority of the pastors who do that are not trained theologically, or if they are then they are not committed to helping those who are suffering.
They gave me an opportunity to be the last to speak and I took the opportunity to apologize for those that have suffered hurt from churches and I also strongly warned my fellow church leaders that if they do that, they have missed the path Jesus is walking now. For He sympathized and had compassion with the outcasts of His day, be they lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes etc. He was setting an example for His true church to follow. “If we are not following Jesus then it is a misnomer for us to be called the ‘Church’”
Later, I met one person who said he thought the Spirit of God led me to say those words, for they struck deep. I now think that we need to be speaking against this vice on the radio for I did not know that other churches are doing this to their own people.
Both as a Christian believer and as a U.S. Episcopal priest, I want the church in the global North to hear voices like Fletcher’s. Secular media’s simplistic reporting of the great church divide – North vs. South, liberal vs. orthodox, culture Christians vs. Biblically faithful Christians – misses the real anguish and struggle of Christian leaders like Fletcher Kaiya coming to terms with AIDS.
In Africa today, just as in our own church and culture twenty years ago, many people are dealing with AIDS by blaming, judging and scapegoating. Fletcher Kaiya, an open-hearted, generous man has suffered personal losses from AIDS (as nearly everyone in Malawi has). He has spoken repeatedly about AIDS education, encouraging people to get voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) and asking that all of us treat those who suffering from the disease with compassion. In his email, the man who has taken 15 AIDS orphans into his own home, and who has spoken more openly than most about family members dying of AIDS, writes of becoming a lightning rod as AIDS patients (in the anonymous safety of their radio voices) tell the painful story of abuse and scorn they have received in Jesus’ name, and of rigidity and judgmentalism preached against them in Jesus’ name. Fletcher finds words to acknowledge the church’s failure and yet insist that what these sufferers have experienced is also the cruelest possible misrepresentation of the compassionate, welcoming Jesus Fletcher knows and calls the whole church to follow.
Sometimes I hear Episcopal Church liberals say, “we should just forget about Africa – they’ve written us off and we have our own work to do.” Knowing the courage and outspoken compassion of African church leaders like Fletcher Kaiya, I imagine his hearing our words from the North. In our genuinely holy and called concern for justice and the full inclusion of LGBT people in our church’s life, can we faithfully say we don’t care about Fletcher and the anguishingly slow change that the African churches are making as their people are dying in the worst epidemic in human history? Rather than writing off a continent, stripping people like Fletcher of their humanity, can we listen and claim his voice as a gift to us too?
As North and South both struggle to remember Jesus’ open-armed, forgiving welcome to all, Fletcher’s voice resonates as prophetically in the North as in the South. He preaches Gospel compassion so simply and courageously that we hear he’s ready to listen and learn from any Christian, or for that matter any stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded person. Here is one of the many witnesses from the Global South of the continuing work for a Baptist and a wider Christian witness to real, day-to-day inclusion of all in God’s embrace.