The HIV-Positive Pastor Breaking Down AIDS Stigma In Zimbabwe
In the long fight against HIV/AIDS, advancements in medicine mean that today, shame and stigma is often more deadly than the disease itself. One Zimbabwean pastor has been preaching a gospel of hope in one of the countries worst affected by the virus.
HARARE — Looking back on the life journey he has traveled since 2002, when medical tests delivered a bombshell that he was HIV-positive, the Rev. Maxwell Kapachawo is satisfied he has been faithful to the assignment that God commissioned him to do … to preach the gospel of hope to the hopeless.
“I have run the race to strengthen others … that even in death from HIV, there is still God in heaven,” Kapachawo, 49, told ReligionUnplugged.com in an interview as he reflected on his life. “Because he is so faithful, here I am today, still believing and spreading the gospel of life and hope.”
Chronic illness caused doctors to urge him to take an HIV test, and when the results came back positive, the world crashed around him. This was a virus associated with people of loose morals. So for a pastor to be HIV-positive, it was unheard of. This was a time when the pandemic peaked in Zimbabwe — one of the countries worst affected by HIV/AIDS — with one in every four adults having the virus and about 4,000 HIV-related deaths recorded weekly.
Anti-retroviral drugs were not yet available, and knowledge of the disease was at most patchy, with getting the virus then equated to a death sentence. As if to remove any vestiges of hope in Kapachawo, his brother and sister soon succumbed to HIV-related illnesses while his other brother opted to take his own life after testing positive to the same deadly virus. It felt like a truly hopeless situation.
Taking a bold decision
It was in that middle of this hopelessness that Kapachawo did the most unthinkable of things: He not only disclosed his HIV-positive status to close family members but also in 2005 went on to sign up to be the face of an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the southern African nation.
“The important message I would want to share with you is that HIV knows no champion,” Kapachawo would declare in the ads after introducing himself as a pastor who was HIV-positive. “God has a purpose for your life and mine,” he would add.
Kapachawo says he does not even know where he got the guts to agree to appear in the ads that were sponsored by Population Services International.
“Looking back to that time now, I also do wonder how it all happened, but honestly the desire to live and give courage to others in the same situation pushed me to do it,” Kapachawo said.
We would encourage one another and try as much as possible to give each other hope.
Like the situation of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who decided to risk it all since they no longer have anything to lose, Kapachawo then resolved that if he was going to die, it would be noble to do so having done his very best, which was fighting stigma around HIV/AIDS.
“After all, during those times, much psychosocial support was only available during our support group meetings,” he said.
“We would encourage one another and try as much as possible to give each other hope. During such times my counselor asked me if I could break the silence and share my status to the nation. Of course she did not force me but made me to understand that it was not only going to help me speak up but would also revive and give hope to many, considering my pastoral position and influence.”
While those at the front line in the fight against HIV/AIDS thought the pastor was the most ideal person to be a messenger of hope to an increasingly despondent nation, not everyone saw this as a great idea.
For his church — where his bishop had once told him that his continuous sickness was making him “a burden” — it was already shameful enough to have a pastor suffering from a “shameful disease,” so it naturally became worse when that pastor had the audacity to appear in ads on television, on radio, in newspapers, on billboards and everywhere imaginable revealing his HIV-positive status. He was quickly excommunicated.
That led Kapachawo to found Abandoned Grace Ministries, a church that would accommodate all, without discrimination. This was followed by the formation of the Zimbabwe Network of Pastors Living and Personally Affected with HIV and AIDS in 2005, a localized version of the African Pastors Living and Personally Affected with HIV and AIDS, which become a platform for tearing down the walls of stigma around the pandemic.
“Very terrible day indeed,” answered Kapachawo when asked about the reaction of those close to him when the first ad appeared on national TV.
“I remember that day I was in Masvingo (a local city) and preparing for a pastors’ meeting the next day. This was a pastors’ fraternal meeting, and I was going to share my life with these leaders. Then just exactly before the main evening news bulletin, boom! It came out.”
He said by the time he went to bed, he had received more than 20 calls from family members and others close to him, mostly expressing displeasure, anger and disappointment at the move that he had taken.
“Come next day at the meeting, I got confronted by some of those pastors, most of whom had no kind words for me. At one time, I doubted whether I had done the right thing because I was so much confused.”
After Church service outside.
Derek Winterburn via Flickr
Stigma worse inside church than outside
Giving the example of how Jesus Christ never took the woman who was accused of adultery to task (John 8:1-11) and that of the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 who never asked the returning son any discomforting questions, Kapachawo said this is ideally how embracing and comforting in the church ought to be, but sadly this is not the case in most churches today. Instead, it is all condemnation and gossip, further compounding the stigma around HIV/AIDS.
People would label you all sorts of names, all very negative.
“Stigma is real within our places of worship,” Kapachawo reflected. “Actually the world has embraced people living with HIV more openly and accepted them unconditionally, unlike the church. The silence within the church is by itself a sure sign that it is not yet ready to tolerate us because of our condition. There is not much talk about this from the pulpit and the pastors taking the lead. So there is still that see and hear nothing attitude within the church.”
The pastor says from his own personal experience, it can safely be said that most of the deaths attributable to HIV were actually not a result of the dreaded disease itself but of the stigma associated with the virus that — in the absence of holistic psychosocial support — robbed people of the will to live, especially where churches and local communities were harsh and unforgiving.
“The ‘animal’ called stigma killed more people that time than the virus — stigma was so high that one would succumb to death very fast before the virus itself took its toll,” he said. “People would label you all sorts of names, all very negative. Those who died in that period died because of stigma and discrimination within communities.”
Medication as a miracle from God
Having begun his antiretroviral (ARV) drug therapy in 2005, Kapachawo is displeased with church leaders who discourage their followers from using ARVs, vaccines and other forms of medicines since he believes that it is God himself who has made medicines available to his people (2 Kings 20:7; Ezekiel 47:12).
He said it was strange that those religious leaders who are overtly or covertly opposed to ARVs still expect a miracle from God even when he has long delivered the ARV miracle to save his people in the very same way he did in Numbers 21, when he told Moses to make a bronze snake to save the children of Israel from death snake bites.
“The very God who made ARVs available for the sake of His people cannot contradict himself,” Kapachawo said. “Yet we of faith we are busy demonizing these medicines and discouraging our members from taking them. We want to see miracle healing in HIV/AIDS, yet honestly speaking, people like me are a living miracle today because of these ARVs. Therefore it is the duty rather of religious leaders to encourage their members who need these medicines to take them, not to discourage them.”
Kapachawo said countless times — starting with his own bishop — instead of being encouraged and comforted, he has instead been taken to task about how he contracted the virus.
“So many times that question came up in almost every gathering whenever I allowed them to ask questions,” he recalled. “(It was) so humiliating or degrading. But the audience needed answers. I have always honestly told the people that all I know now is I have this virus, but how I got it, I am totally blank!”
Religion is a big part of the Zimbabwean culture and this photo captures a raw, intimate moment between a woman and her creator.
International Citizen Service via Flickr
Ultimately a better person
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, Kapachawo said the excommunication actually served to free him to become a roving pastor, accepting invitations from different churches and trying to calm congregants overwhelmed by the devastating effects of the HIV virus.
“I am currently not attached to any church for many reasons,” he explained. “One … being that quite a number of these churches did not understand me as a person because of being HIV-positive, so I took it upon myself to fellowship within the interdenominational gatherings. I feel (more) safe and comfortable there than anywhere else.”
Kapachawo, whose message always emphasizes that God has a special purpose for every person, says what has happened to him has made him a better person.
“Indeed this has been a turning curve in my life, living with HIV for all this long has made me to understand some things clearly and more positively. This has even raised my faith in God in all my dealings with fellow human beings.”
The pastor is looking forward to celebrating his 50th birthday in October while he is still in the land of the living — something that he says was unimaginable when he received the results of his HIV test back in 2002.
“I see God in all this and am so grateful for having a second chance to minister as a person living with HIV,” he said. “Let’s preach a message of life, love and hope to all. Support those in need of these life-saving medicines more and blame them less because of their condition.”
Cyril Zenda is a Christian and an African journalist and writer based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
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