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Remember the Samaritan woman: Christian HIV sufferer urges churches to be God's 'healing hands', rather than hide in stigma

by Will Hobbs

A Christian activist and HIV survivor has urged churches to combat the stigma surrounding HIV, which she says contradicts the grace and life of Jesus.

Gracia Quiroga also insists that young people are crying out for church guidance on sex more than ever, and churches have a "pastoral mandate" to address sexual issues, with HIV sufferers becoming "younger and younger."

Quiroga became an activist after she was raped and became HIV positive as a teenager in Bolivia, 23 years ago.

At that time, there was no access in the country to HIV treatment, and she described testing positive as "a death sentence." She also feared she would lose her church family.

But, to her surprise, Quiroga was met with what she calls "real Christian love" and was warmly embraced by the church.

"We have so many examples in the Bible in which Jesus reaches out to people who are marginalized and spends time with them, restoring them physically and also at the community level.

"But our churches, being human institutions, you know, have these stigmas, and in some places, it's been preached as if it's the word of God that those in homosexuality will have the payment of their sin, which is HIV.

"These ideas are still preached in many churches."

Quiroga founded the Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV (REDBOL), which took the Bolivian State to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to secure medication for HIV.

Fifty-two people signed a petition demanding access to treatment in 2002. The court deliberated for two years, and in 2004, they had a favorable decision. By that time, only 27 of the original 52 who signed the petition were alive. Today, only six remain alive.

Quiroga recently joined the WCC to lead the Ecumenical HIV/AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA), a program that focuses on equipping churches for a competent HIV response.

She prioritizes churches creating intergenerational safe space conversations between faith leaders and young people to discuss complex topics such as sexuality, relationships, and HIV, victims of which, she says, are getting younger and younger.

"If we don't give young people the information to prevent HIV, where are they going to get this information? Can you tell me their parents will educate them? No. Can you tell me their school friends will educate them? No.

"So they will look for information on the internet, and this will be misleading because maybe it's not accurate information.

"They will end up connected to pornography and trafficking. We have a moral responsibility and pastoral mandate to educate young people, and it is not true that they will go and have sex like crazy. There are many studies that tell us that young people who receive education on sexuality delay their sexual debut."

"The world is very aggressive; I can just feel sorry about how young people are living today without any guidance. And churches want to also get away from this out of shame, you know, 'how are we going to talk with the young people about sex?' Well, we must."

In over two decades of campaigning, Quiroga is seriously encouraged by the growth of understanding surrounding HIV, which, with the right daily medication, is no longer transmittable.

For Christians battling continued stigma around the disease, Quiroga points to the legacy of Christ, and in particular, his encounter with a woman in John 4 who was ostracized for having five husbands and another lover.

"Instead of creating more distance, he reaches out to her. That is why the Bible says he had to go through Samaria because he had to meet her. It was an intentional act to go to Samaria, meet her and talk to her.

"Then she was a missionary.

"She was not a theologian, she was not a bishop. She didn't study; she had questionable morals, according to the beliefs of that time.

"But she did one thing. She told everyone what Jesus did to her; she just told her story. And then many believed because of her; she is a missionary.

"And God likes to use these kinds of people, the ones that don't have titles but simple people who can tell the truth of what God did to them."

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