Joe Samalenge embraces a friend at a Drew University worship service.
By Julia Kayser*
December 14, 2012—Joe Samalenge is a lanky, smiling extrovert who always has an interesting story to tell. He grew up in the Congo, attended college at Africa University in Zimbabwe, and then came to Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey to study social justice. I’ve known him for several years as a friendly face on campus, and an excellent intramural soccer player. What I didn’t know is that Samalenge is a man on a mission.
“I use my entire life to stand up for the oppressed,” he says. Right now he’s working with UMCOR Global Health, and his area of expertise is HIV and AIDS. The question he’s trying to answer is: What does the Bible say about stigma, and what can the church do to address it?
Samalenge explains the evolution of myths about HIV and AIDS in Africa. “In the beginning, many people believed that HIV/AIDS was related to witchcraft,” he says. Once people learned that it was biological, the misconception shifted: because it’s often sexually transmitted, the disease was associated with promiscuity. “HIV became a punishment from God,” Samalenge says. The fact that there was no cure only reinforced this myth.
The result is that people with HIV and AIDS are stigmatized. “In the Christian faith, it’s as if to say that [HIV positive] people have lost the image of God; they are not worthy.” Samalenge argues that it’s wrong to treat anyone this way. “Stigma is the real sin as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned,” he says.
The consequences of stigma are spiritual, emotional, and physical. People resist testing because they are afraid they will get a positive result and become ostracized. Those who are HIV positive become secretive and afraid. Some of them are so angry about the “curse” they’ve received that they become more promiscuous and “choose to spread the disease out of rage,” Samalenge says. Others become “so shocked and broken emotionally that in a few months they pass away… they feel they are worthless, punished by God,” he adds.
Samalenge has been traveling to local churches and universities this year, trying to change the way people talk about sin, stigma, HIV and AIDS. He tells the story from John 8:1-11 of the adulterous woman brought before Jesus to be killed. Jesus says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (NRSV). This passage suggests that there is no special sin, no sin less forgivable than the others. Jesus tells the woman, “Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again” (NRSV). Samalenge sees this as an exhortation for each person to change his or her way of life. He hears Jesus saying, “Don’t stigmatize yourselves,” and offering each of us a fresh start.
“Only when we control stigma can we control and abolish HIV and AIDS,” Samalenge says.
You can help by giving to the United Methodist Global AIDS FUND, Advance #982345.
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org