Saturday, July 2, 2011

Big Tent: AIDS in Malawi

“The thing that surprised them most,” said Phylis Weezman speaking about her educational program on HIV/AIDS in Malawi, “is how bad things are in Mawlawi compared to other parts of the world. They simply believe that HIV and AIDS are as big of a problem in the rest of the world as they are in Malawi.” According to Weezman, there is stunned silence with the inevitable, “Why is that?” She responds.“Well, why do you think?” she asks participants. And so begins the week long program on HIV and AIDS education in Malawi.

During a break out session during the Big Tent conference, a committed group of individuals came together to discuss some of the international AIDS work the Presbyterian Church was doing, specifically how God was working through Malawi congregations.

The facts are these (from the UNAIDS 2010 report):
  •        There are an estimated 33.3 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide. Nearly one third of them live in southern Africa.
  •        68% of all people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 72% of all AIDS deaths occurred in this region
  •        40% on all adult women with HIV live in southern Africa
  •      Lack of education of education and comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS and gender inequalities (including some traditional practices) put individuals at an increased risk risk.

During the course of the session, Weezman explained how the large Malawian population in South Bend, Indiana (an estimated 1,500) were a catalyst for her work. They brought attention to the needs of Malawi to her church. Though working with Malawian people in her congregation, missionaries, and the Nkhoma Synod of Malawi, Weezman created an educational curriculum.

What is unique about Weezman’s work is the way it utilizes various methods of learning and the Malawi traditions, including songs and story.  What Weezman realized was, in a place of limited resources and limited literacy; you have to find various ways to educate the community.

Though the need is great in Africa, and our efforts often seem like a drop in the sea of need, Weezman closed her presentation with Esther 4:14, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance from the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

“For such a time as this” that we live, that we are called to minister to. As we reflect on 30 years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we recognize that we are called to do our part in meeting the needs of those suffering, both domestically and internationally.  

What impressed me most about the work in Malawi our church is doing, is the way existing faith communities were utilized--the Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian (CCAP) is comprised of 1.2 million members. Including youth, this figure can exceed 5.5 million! It is not the we needed to create something that did not exist, instead we are utilizing our faith community, mobilizing them, equipping them. Frankly, it’s awesome.

The 219th Presbyterian Church General Assembly (2010) committed itself to building competency in HIV and AIDS--a history that began in the 1980s of reaffirming and reforming ourself to meet "such a time as this." 

As we move into the next decade of this epidemic, with no end in sight, how will our church step up to play its part as a faith community? What role does a community of faith play in fighting a global pandemic?

Matthew Dimick is a Boston University School of Theology and School of Social Work graduate student. He is currently a Beatitudes Society Fellow working in the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness on HIV/AIDS related issues and policy. He can be reached at

To follow more of the Big Tent happenings, be on the lookout for the hash-tag #bigtent11 and also check out the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference blog!