Spirituality And Medication: Perfect Partners Or Deadly Duo In The Fight Against Hiv?

While there presently is little public knowledge of how Pentecostal churches frame their HIV prevention concepts in the context of both church and non-spiritual influences, a better understanding of both these issues would be important for the packaging of public health messages to reduce risk of HIV infection within communities. It that way, the phrase, “I receive!” may prove to be much more than just an expression of Botswana’s burgeoning spiritual renaissance, writes RORISANG MOGOJWE

There is clapping, dancing and jumping up and down as the ‘Man of God’ makes his way into the hall, flanked by bodyguards – his protocol. Such is the excitement that a few of the congregants, some of whom have been waiting patiently for several hours to catch a glimpse of the man, collapse.

A short prayer and thunderous applause from the congregation later, the Servant of God calls for testimonies before he begins his sermon. “I have been living with HIV for the past six years, but last week the Man of God prayed for me and delivered me,” states the woman testifying in front of the congregation. “I also bought the anointing water and administered it as I was believing in God for healing. Later, I went to the hospital to get tested again, and by the grace of God, my test results came back negative! I am healed!”

The crowd goes wild and cheers for the testimony. Standing at the altar, the church leader is visibly excited at this news and gives thanks and praise to God, taking no credit for himself.

This is a typical scenario that one may come across at a Pentecostal church, especially the charismatic variety. There have been instances where a number of patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS migrated to the church to go and pray their condition away, some of them strongly believing in the power of the holy water, oil and salt, and their healing powers, thus avoiding medication.

On the same note, there are also instances where traditional healers advise their clients to opt for traditional herbs as treatment, instead of ARV medication. Quite often, these healers double as pastors or bishops – ko dithusong. Pastors by day, traditional healers by night. Which then begs the question: what exactly is the role of spirituality in the fight against HIV?

The conflict between spirituality and health
According to the Botswana Council of Churches, Pentecostal churches comprise 73% of faith-based organisations (FBOs) in Botswana and are the majority faith community. These churches emphasize the importance of being born again, being filled with the Holy Spirit and prosperity. They typically believe in faith healing, which is based in a genuine belief in the healing power of Christ, a trend that is also very much a part of the new economy of religious response to HIV and AIDS.

HIV activist Bonosi Segadimo, who champions the Faith and Community Intervention (FCI) project of PEPFAR Botswana, acknowledges the vital role that churches plays in providing Christ-like care in the era of HIV. She says because of its huge following, and it being a knowledge generating environment, the church is best placed to empower and educate people about HIV, and most importantly, adhering to ARVs for those living with HIV.

“The church should provide counselling, care and support to people living with HIV in supporting government in promoting HIV testing among members and uptake as well as well as adherence to ART,” she says.

Segadimo, however, also equally blames some religious leaders for encouraging HIV positive members of their congregations to stop taking their medication after being prayed for as a sign of their faith in Christ. “People leave treatment in the name of Jesus Christ,” she says. “This has played a big part in influencing HIV cases. Seriously ill patients are being encouraged by some faith leaders to depend on prayers rather than on pills. The congregation should not judge but support those living with HIV.”

She cites an instance where a community member committed suicide after being convinced by a church that he did not suffer from a mental health problem. The man’s mental health deteriorated after he stopped taking his medicine after taking guidance from the pastor.

Critics of faith healing say it is not a secret but rather an accepted mishap because people never really know the consequence or damage that faith healing causes within communities. But not all Pentecostal churches encourage members to stop taking medication. Infact, most encourage them to continue adhering to medication and take it as prescribed by doctors.

Says a study titled The Faith Sector and HIV/AIDS in Botswana: Responses and Challenges: “The Togarasei project found that 83% of respondents said more than half the members of the churches believe that HIV and AIDS can be healed in the name of God. Respondents said the most common ways in which the healing was practised was by the laying of hands in prayer (97%), through prayers of the leaders of the church (78%) and through use of holy oil (32%). About 60% of the respondents said they had been healed of HIV and AIDS or knew somebody who had been. Asked what the signs of someone who had been healed were, 83% said those who were healed were declared HIV negative by a medical doctor after the healing process while 33% said all signs of illness had disappeared. In the interviews, the respondents had stated that those who had been healed had initially been medically declared to be infected.”

HIV and the Prophetic
Some Pentecostal churches in Botswana spiritualise the HIV/AIDS pandemic by referring to it as a demon or spiritual possession which can be cast out in the name of Jesus. HIV activists therefore believe that this leads not only to stigmatisation of HIV but also to the church putting too much effort in dealing with the pandemic spiritually rather than physically. Segadimo says this could therefore explain why many charismatic churches do not have measures in place to effectively deal with social problems caused by HIV.

Prophet Wycliff Hakaantu of Exceeding Grace Ministries in Tlokweng says they believe in God and the power of working miracles, as well as medical help working together. “You need to understand that doctors and medicine are God-given,” he says. “So the church can never discredit medical professionals. However, healing comes from God and we therefore encourage faith in God. Doctors provide medical attention, which helps, but healing is not of man because man is limited but God isn’t. There are issues that require medical attention and those that need spiritual attention. We believe in the two working together. The Bible says He heals all our iniquities and diseases. And so, if you believe in Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals, then you will be healed.”

About the belief that prophetic churches deceive people using anointed material (water, oil, salt, wristbands, stickers and so on), Prophet Wycliff puts it simply: “These are mediums used to transport the power of God, and they work according to one’s faith.”

Medical doctor, Dr. Thebe Loabile, told The Gazette that any proven medical case of HIV cure would have been documented. He therefore advises those living with HIV not to discontinue their medication. “There are many cases where antiretroviral therapy (ART) reduces a person’s viral load to an undetectable level,” he says. “Viral suppression, however, does not mean a person is cured as HIV remains in the body. If ART is discontinued, the person’s viral load will return to a detectable level. Further discontinuation of the medication will result in the ultimate death of the patient.”

While there presently is little evidence of how Pentecostal churches frame their HIV prevention concepts in the context of both church and non-spiritual influences, a better understanding of both these issues would be important for the packaging of public health-oriented messages to reduce risk of HIV within communities. And then perhaps, the phrase, “I receive!” will prove to be much more than just an expression of Botswana’s burgeoning spiritual renaissance.