By Caitlyn Cook Furr
AIDS doesn’t often make U.S. headlines anymore, but in Kenya, HIV/AIDS is a leading cause of death. While the medical establishment is trying to alleviate the impact, the church refuses to take a leadership role by perpetuating judgmental stereotypes. I wanted to attempt to understand how the theological attitudes impact this epidemic.
This semester of my seminary experience has been quite different from the others, as I am studying abroad at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya.
St. Paul’s has a relationship with both the school of theology and the school of public health at Emory, so it seemed like the perfect learning opportunity for my dual Master of Divinity and Master of Public Health. My time in Kenya has been wonderfully challenging, and I’ve had experiences here that I treasure and will never forget. I have been struck by the unending hospitality and friendliness I’ve experienced in my time at St. Paul’s. Although my life experiences differ drastically from my classmates’, I was immediately welcomed with open arms. The head of the theology department at St. Paul’s even invited me to his home for a weekend where I got to know his family, attended church with them, and learned how to make the classic Kenyan dish, chapati.
Upon arriving at St. Paul’s, I quickly noticed the palpable impact of HIV/AIDS.
People talk about HIV/AIDS and its effect in their communities much more than we do in the United States. This is partly because St. Paul’s has made a conscious effort to equip graduating ministers to address HIV/AIDS in their communities, an admirable goal, and partly because the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is much higher in Kenya.
From talking with my peers, I’ve come to learn that sadly, the church has not reacted appropriately the HIV/AIDS pandemic. HIV/AIDS is highly stigmatized throughout Africa, and the church has played a significant role in perpetuating that stigma. The theology that HIV/AIDS is punishment for sexual immorality is pervasive, and stigma disincentives people from getting tested and seeking treatment, worsening the crisis.
I’ve sensed a tension between the cultural value of offering hospitality, and the church’s stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. Although Kenyans value hospitality and are incredibly friendly, the church demonizes people living with HIV/AIDs, and does not provide a hospitable environment to people infected and in great need of compassion. As Christians, we are called to welcome those who are oppressed, and show hospitality to stigmatized groups. I am proud to say that my friends at St. Paul’s are working to change that dynamic in the church.
We don’t feel the effects of the HIV/AIDs pandemic as strongly in most American communities, but I think it is important to ask ourselves where we fall short in showing hospitality to marginalized people.
What are the pervasive issues in our communities that we are afraid to address from the pulpit? It is incredibly rare to hear a pastor preach on showing hospitality to rape survivors, undocumented immigrants, or people struggling with opioid addiction. Our silence reinforces stigma and our unspoken judgments stifle the healing process.
Showing compassion to those who are marginalized in society has to be a priority of the church. Christ taught that caring for people is more important than our reputations and societal norms. Churches that practice radical hospitality and talk openly about stigmatized issues such as HIV/AIDS seem to be the exception, not the rule. May we follow Christ’s example, empowering those who are marginalized, and demonstrating unending hospitality.
Caitlyn Cook Furr is a dual degree master’s student at Emory University, pursuing a Master of Divinity at the Candler School of Theology and a Master of Public Health at the Rollins School of Public Health. She will graduate in May of 2019. Caitlyn hopes to spend her career connecting church mission efforts with public health resources, to expand and enrich global mission efforts. Caitlyn previously worked in the Global Missions department at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) headquarters in Decatur, GA. She served as a Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty Fellow in 2015-2016, and the CBF Vestal Scholar in 2016-2017.