HARARE (ZIMBABWE) – The group of women listens attentively as the workshop facilitator talks.  A gasp, a murmur, and at times, applause, can be heard. For the past five days, the group has learned a lot, and even had the opportunity to discuss issues previously viewed as taboo.

This is Seke South Circuit of the United Methodist Church, located 30km south of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, and the 10 women in the church sanctuary have been attending training on home – based care for patients suffering from various terminal illnesses.  One of the diseases is HIV/AIDS.

In a country where it was unheard of in local culture to discuss sexual matters, the United Methodist Church has taken a leading role in creating awareness about HIV/AIDS, supporting affected families, and providing palliative care for the terminally ill.

UMC Chitungwiza – Marondera District head of women’s work, Mavis Chimbunde, says the church has adopted a multi-pronged attack in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “We have been using the pulpit to create awareness about the disease knowing that once the congregation is well-informed, they are better equipped to deal with the disease, whether they are infected or affected,” she said.

Chimbunde says the church realised that people provide quality care for people they are related to hence the introduction of Home Based Care Givers courses run at the church in conjunction with healthcare professionals.

“The sick are more comfortable in the care of people they know rather than strangers. We decided it was essential for the congregants to know how to care for the sick when they are discharged from hospital as suitable candidates for home nursing.  We serve a low income earning population and engaging the services of a nurse for home care is beyond their reach hence the need to equip them with knowledge and skills on how to care for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS.”

The church has initiated discussions on reproductive health matters starting at the smallest unit, the family which then meets with neighbouring members at section level then at the church.  “Family ministries has made a lot of headway in the fight against HIV/AIDS since previously disadvantaged women are now able to get literature about the scourge and are therefore empowered to make decisions on how to safeguard themselves from infection or re-infection,” says Chimbunde.

Health and Welfare committees in the church have taken centre stage in educating people about the need to know their HIV status and making lifestyle changes once the status is known.  Education has included teachings on anti-retroviral treatment, nutrition and behaviour change.

Chimbunde says the church discourages multiple sex partners: “As a church, one of our core values is to live an experiential Christian life and therefore we encourage our members to be monogamous and live responsible lives.  This has helped curb the spread. For those already infected, we encourage safe sex to prevent re-infection and our pastors offer counselling and other support for them to live a positive life.”

Stigma from society was also a major challenge faced by people living with HIV/AIDS but the church has embraced them and does not discriminate.

One female church member, who declined to be named, said she felt safe to disclose her status at Seke South Circuit.  “At the time, people assumed it was a disease which affected people outside the church and when I told the congregation I was HIV-positive, the pastors and church members welcomed my disclosure and did not discriminate against me.”

Her bold decision resulted in other church members going for voluntary counselling and testing and coming to her for advice and support if they tested positive.  “I am able to live positively knowing that my church embraces me as I am.  At the height of the country’s economic crisis in 2008, the church supplied me with mealie-meal to ensure I maintained a good diet,” she said.

The United Methodist Church runs three mission hospitals and 12 rural health facilities which offer a variety of services related to HIV/AIDS. These include voluntary testing and counselling, prevention of mother-to-child-transmission, CD4 count and anti-retroviral therapy.  The church has trained volunteer care givers who offer palliative care, education, and support for orphans and vulnerable children within their respective communities.