Johannesburg - Mbulelo Dyasi has always been a man of faith. But when he was shunned by his church for disclosing his HIV-positive status, he didn’t know where to turn.
He was told the virus ravaging his body was not HIV, but the work of demons.
“I was really shocked,” Dyasi said.
“I did not expect the church to discriminate on the basis of health.”
Dyasi was diagnosed in 2003, and in the Eastern Cape town where he grew up, his status wasn’t a problem. When he moved to Joburg in 2011, however, it was a different story.
He claimed his new church adhered to a belief system that rejected the life-saving science of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in favour of the preaching of self-made prophets, who insisted that holy water was the answer to life’s ills.
“When I came here, I was disappointed and shocked that in a vibrant city like Johannesburg, churches can still discriminate,” he said.
“I found myself isolated, lonely, and that’s when I realised that I’m not wanted in that church. I said to myself, instead of staying in this church depressed, I’d rather leave’”.
So Dyasi, who also has diabetes and epilepsy, left in 2013.
“I changed churches like I’m changing socks,” Dyasi said to laughter during an event at his current church this month.
“But I’m here. I’m alive.”
Some weren’t so lucky. Dyasi said his cousin and sister, who he declined to name to protect his family’s privacy, died after being told to stop taking their ARVs.
After a six-month hiatus from organised religion, Dyasi began attending the Faith Centre Malvern Assembly, where he said his HIV-positive status has never been an issue.
The church’s Bishop Eric Mkhize, along with Dyasi, has made it his life’s work to educate other faith leaders and community members about the dangers of not adhering to treatment.
Mkhize and Dyasi, who also serves on the SA National Aids Council’s (Sanac) men’s sector, launched a series of monthly men’s forums in February to provide a space to discuss issues of faith and sexuality and erase the stigma around being HIV-positive.
“Most pastors are not clued up about HIV and Aids,” said Mkhize.
“There are so many young pastors, so many prophets, and they want people to use anything to cure any disease.
“There are some diseases that couldn’t be cured, even with the great man of God.”
Mkhize invoked the biblical story of Paul, the apostle, who, when his friend Trophimus was sick, couldn’t save him.
“Most healing is our spiritual healing,” he said.
“We cannot take a position of being God. That is not what God called us to do.
“People will die, and we are accountable for the people.”
Several cases about religious leaders encouraging the use of holy water rather than medicine for the treatment of diseases like HIV have made the headlines.
In 2013, the Treatment Action Campaign condemned a Durban priest who sold bottles of holy water he claimed held the cure for HIV - 500ml for R10.
Mkhize told of a paralysed elderly man he had met who threw away his crutches at the urging of his pastor.
Mkhize said another man, suffering from diabetes, embarked on a fast. As his blood sugar levels dropped, he collapsed and almost died.
Phumzile Mabizela is the executive director of INERELA+, a network of faith leaders living with HIV. She said the stigma surrounding HIV is the number one barrier to people seeking treatment.
“The one who has been tested as HIV-positive is seen as an impure person or dirty or promiscuous or sick or ill,” said Mabizela.
“Stigma is our biggest enemy, and religion has been used to justify this rejection or the stigmatisation of people living with HIV and Aids for a very long time.”
Dyasi said Sanac had re-ceived complaints about pastors encouraging their congregants to forgo ARVs and that the council had set up a task team to investigate the problem.
The Department of Health has received complaints about similar cases.
Joe Maila, a spokesman for the department, said it was extremely irresponsible for people to claim alternative methods for treating HIV.
He said the distribution of misinformation about HIV would cause South Africa to “regress in terms of the gains that we have made” in fighting HIV.
Gender activist Steve Letsike, of Access Chapter 2, warned of dismissing the issue as a cultural problem, found only among traditional healers or sangomas. She said faith was a “particularly complicated issue”. She pointed to the pastor in Durban who she said made money off of the fears of the poor.
“A lot of it stems from the ethos of (former president Thabo) Mbeki,” she said.
“Religion is used as an excuse to capitalise on social ills. Churches have to reflect on what their purpose is. We hope churches will be spaces of safety.”
It is unclear how many people are affected by the shaky science of holy water as treatment. Because the stigma around HIV in faith communities is so strong, Mabizela said, it was vital for leaders to be open about their status.
“It’s not a moral issue, it’s not a death sentence, it’s not a curse,” Mabizela said.
“It’s becoming better. When people see an HIV-positive religious leader, it encourages them to be more open about it.
“I think there are a lot of people whose lives have been changed by our stories.”
Faith Centre’s most recent event was a men’s health workshop. Because there are usually women working at clinics, Mkhize said, men don’t have a space to talk openly about HIV.
He said he plans to orchestrate more men’s meetings and will host a women’s conference in September.
Some have found creative ways to promote treatment while building up the faith of the people they serve. Nhlanhla Nzimande a priest in KwaZulu-Natal, encourages his members to down their medication with holy water.
During Faith Centre’s most recent event, a men’s health workshop, attendees laughed when someone mentioned Nzimandeâ€™s unconventional take on HIV treatment. Church leaders in attendance emphasised the importance of showing their members that adherence to treatment and faith are not mutually exclusive.
“The best place for hiding is in the church,” Dyasi said.
“But the church is also the best place to comfort people.”
Mkhize said he hopes to spread the message that medicine is an instrument of God: doctors can treat, but only God can heal.
“HIV is not a death sentence,” he said.
“You can still live the life God gave. We need to speak and educate people. That’s where the call comes from.”