The broad church of the TAC
There was a time when HIV/AIDS was the biggest taboo. People shut their doors and turned away from people with HIV. However, one church took a bold move to speak openly about HIV and encouraged people from the congregation to engage with HIV, to learn more, and share their experiences whether infected or affected by AIDS.
JG Zwane church in Gugulethu, has been around for many years, the entrance hall is decorated with photos and short stories of people who were involved in the apartheid struggle. It has always been a church that has been highly involved in community issues. When HIV/AIDS came to the fore and devastated many families, there was no way the church could sit back and do nothing.
‘People thought that HIV was God’s punishment, but if that was the case then we should all have had it, because we are all sinners,’ says Reverend Spiwo Xapile. Reflecting back on his relationship with the TAC, the Reverend recalls how difficult it was to bring HIV/AIDS to the congregation.
‘Some people left the church, they did not want to be part of a church that associated itself with HIV,’ he said. It was one thing to speak openly about HIV within the congregation, but getting people to fully engage the issue, and fight the stigma around the disease was another thing. That was where the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) came in.
There are two things that define the TAC for Reverend Xapile: their ability to educate and their ability to engage people with no formal education.
When it comes to sexuality, there are some areas that the church cannot delve into. ‘I often see the congregation thinking to themselves, does the pastor know about these things he is talking about,’ he muses. The TAC fills that gap for us, they are far removed enough to be able to speak openly and frankly, yet at the same time they are close enough that the congregation listens, respects them and really takes their education to heart, he explains.
While the TAC has made huge strides in the Western Cape, Reverend Xapile does not believe their work is done. ‘There are still many rural communities that are still untapped, what will happen if we never reach them?’ he says.
At the time of this interview, it was day three of the nationwide #FeesMustFall protest. University students all over the country demonstrated against the high price of education. ‘We are sitting at the dawn of a struggle of education, but it’s not just the university students, that need education, the community needs education ,’ says the Reverend.
Despite having won the battle around stigma within his own congregation. Reverend Xapile is well aware that there are many churches that still have a long way to go. ‘I was disillusioned when I had to try and make people see the obvious,’ says the Reverend.
Sometimes it is difficult to marry the teachings of religion with reality. Often people are willing to suffer on earth in the hope that things will be better in the afterlife.
‘There is this idea that things that don’t work here, will work in heaven, but actually God wants us to create something new in this world,’ he says.
Whatever their religious affiliations, the TAC has ensured that people are educated about HIV. ‘You know, I think that all those people that work there are atheists, but they have such a deep understanding of humanity,’ says the Reverend.
Humanity is at the centre of the TAC story. And, it is a love for humankind and the desire to see an end to suffering that drives the relationship between JG Zwane and the TAC. The TAC holds a special place in the church as evident in one of the pictures in Reverend Xapile’s office: alongside a big cross is a framed photo of him in the TAC’s iconic HIV-positive T-shirt.