Elizabeth Hunter of The Lutheran magazine interviewed Sheila Shyamprasad, Global AIDS coordinator for the Lutheran World Federation, on Aug. 21. Shyamprasad is a physician who formerly headed up Lutheran HIV/AIDS work in India.
The Lutheran: How long has the LWF worked with HIV/AIDS prevention? Have some of the early challenges improved?
The LWF has been doing HIV/AIDS work since 1986 or 1987.
In the early 1990s, when I was working in India, it was very difficult to talk to people in the church. They’d say, “No, you can’t use our church to talk about sex, but you can use the parish hall.” Now people realize the church has a role to play, although I think they’re still happier to jump on care and treatment rather than prevention. With prevention, you have to talk about dicey issues—sexuality, condoms, commercial sex workers, drug use, etc. You need a lot of confidence to talk about that.
We need to do a lot of advocacy in congregations and more theological work. We must get rid of the idea that sex is dirty. Sex is beautiful and God-given. But how do we motivate leaders to get up and talk? It’s much easier to have everything calm in the congregation than to bring this up, but with persistence and courage we can do it.What’s the LWF’s goal?
The LWF has a five-year plan to get more church leaders on board with this work, whether it’s prevention or care and support. We plan to work with ecumenical partners toward common training programs and networks. We waste resources, energy and time when we only work within our own communions. The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance
, a group of 90 churches and church-related organizations, meets every two months to share knowledge about what’s happening where. Establishing links makes it better for everyone, as does having HIV-positive people on board. AIDS is such a long disease, and you can’t do everything yourself. The LWF uses the phrase “AIDS-competent churches”—what does that mean?
It means that a church’s pastors and members have a good understanding—not myths and misconceptions—of HIV/AIDS. Such a church also will have a policy on HIV/AIDS and someone responsible for disseminating information. In an AIDS-competent church, congregations welcome people living with the virus, helping them to feel safe, comfortable and not discriminated against. But to have any church move in this direction, you must have leaders on board.The LWF has a network of HIV/AIDS coordinators. Why it was important for them to attend the International AIDS Conference in Toronto?
The ELCA, Lutheran World Relief and Canadian Lutheran World Relief raised $70,000 to bring 20 Lutheran HIV/AIDS coordinators—and me—from around the world to Toronto. It was a wonderful opportunity for people who are often struggling on their own to do HIV/AIDS work. Yes, it’s possible to update your knowledge over a Web site or by reading, but somehow that almost never happens in a busy schedule. I’ve been to five of these conferences now, and this time the most important thing was making our faith-based contribution evident to the larger community. Are there other ways the coordinators can connect more regularly?
I’m developing a Web-based database of all the LWF’s HIV/AIDS field work. Coordinators will have passwords so they can add their own project information. In working on this, I’ve been surprised to see projects I thought were small because they used small amounts of LWF money that turned out to be big because they’d also accessed so many other resources.You do difficult work that could easily become depressing. What keeps you going?
When you’ve embarked on a mission meant to ease suffering, it’s knowing that God wants justice everywhere. It’s also hearing inspiring stories from the field that show tremendous strength where you least expect it. I don’t think one should ever give up. We can make a difference in the lives of people who are affected and people who are not yet infected.What’s most needed from the ELCA?
I’ve been shocked to hear that HIV/AIDS education and prevention isn’t required in all the schools. In India, most people now think of HIV/AIDS education as a life and death matter—something they have to teach.
Most churches in the West need to do more education in congregations. The government often isn’t providing HIV/AIDS education in local schools. ELCA congregations should ask themselves: do we have an HIV/AIDS prevention strategy in our Sunday schools? If not, who will lead it? Also, how are we helping to ease the suffering of people with HIV/AIDS? And do we understand the vital issues of injustice around the virus? The virus isn’t the same for everyone. In the U.S., people live a long time with the HIV virus, but in Africa, it’s a death sentence.
So what can you do? Why not have a letter-writing campaign to put pressure on the government and on pharmaceutical companies? Change doesn’t happen overnight, but you keep on knocking. Awakening this response in Lutheran Christians in the U.S. would mean a great deal.