By Paul Jeffrey
DURBAN, South Africa — At an international conference about AIDS that brought 18,000 people to this seaside city, it was the big things that usually drew attention: a plenary where the actress Charlize Theron said sexism and racism prevent us from ending AIDS, a media scrum surrounding Sir Elton John and Prince Harry as they pleaded for people to get tested, even a press conference where researchers discussed arcane vaccine trials that could change the face of the epidemic. But sometimes it’s the small events that tell a larger story.
Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. He’s a rather prominent guy. But he’s fairly humble, so when he stopped by the Interfaith Networking Zone in the conference’s Global Village July 19, not many people paid attention. He chatted with folks, but then needed to leave for a press conference.
The Global Village was a wild maze of displays, booths and discussion areas sponsored by special interest groups representing all sorts of people touched by AIDS. Right across from the interfaith area was the Sex Workers Networking Zone. Archbishop Makgoba stopped there and introduced himself to the women.
Among those he greeted was Babalwa Matikinca, who works in the Eastern Cape for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT). She told me she had been having an emotional day, and when the archbishop suddenly appeared, she started crying.
“I was so grateful. It was a blessing. I was happy. I was happy. I was happy,” she said.
Matikinca does education and helps run support groups for sex workers, and she said the church needs to cross into their world more often.
“Sex workers are often operating in hideaway zones, their work unknown to their family because there is a lot of stigma. They feel alone. The church should be a place where they can find comfort and support to help them cope. Just like Jesus, who, when people wanted to stone a sex worker, said that only those who hadn’t sinned could do it,” she said. “Jesus loves these women. His church should be a place where they feel welcome. They are responsible women, working hard to support their families. They often want to make an offering to the church but they feel blocked from going there.”
Nadia Gubangxa was there also, and the archbishop recognized her as one of his parishioners from Cape Town. She’s the operations manager for SWEAT and agreed churches have work to do.
“Our church has had a bad reputation with the women in the past. We were still stuck in the old ways. But the archbishop is very focused on HIV and AIDS and on looking at new initiatives to reach out. It’s a very fresh, different approach to that of most church leaders in South Africa,” she said.
“It was a positive thing that he came over here. He holds a big position, so hopefully other people will start emulating what he is doing. People will feel safer going to church. You’ll feel you can actually speak to a religious advisor for counsel and not be discriminated against.”
Ruth Morgan Thomas, a British woman who coordinates the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which has members in 77 countries, praised the archbishop for his visit.
“Many faith leaders are recognizing the human rights of sex workers in our communities, recognizing that we have agency. Not everyone needs to agree with our choices, but they need to respect us as human beings,” she told me.
“Yet this morning I also met some Christians who were demonstrating outside the conference, telling us that Jesus hates us and that prostitution will harden my heart. So we still have a long way to go. How do you respect the human being in front of you if you condemn them as a sinner?”
Archbishop Makgoba’s visit set a different tone. That’s not surprising, said Dominican Sister Alison Munro, who runs the AIDS program of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
“The archbishop is wonderful. I have always admired the way he is willing to stand up for this loving approach to people at the margins, not just for the Anglican church but for the entire religious community in South Africa,” she said.
Archbishop Makgoba told me the encounter “created a wealth of emotions. I need to go and process it. But it is by God’s grace that we move from the church into the real mission field. So my reflection starts with repentance. There are places we have created unconscious barriers that we need to transcend.”
After the archbishop left the conference, the dialogue continued. Lyn van Rooyen, director of the Christian AIDS Bureau of Southern Africa, which trains Catholic and Protestant church workers on HIV and AIDS around the world, sat down to talk with some of the women the archbishop had met, and they agreed to a series of future encounters between sex workers and pastoral agents.
Sex workers, who are 10 times more likely than the general population to contract HIV, have long been a key demographic in the struggle against AIDS, along with men who have sex with men and injecting drug users. Stigmatizing or criminalizing them are widely seen as counterproductive, yet for religious leaders with narrow limits on acceptable behavior, reaching out to these and other groups at the margins has stretched their understandings of sin and grace. Crossing from their religious space to the world where real people struggle isn’t easy.
God, however, seems to have already made the journey. The women told me that the SWEAT office in Cape Town has a weekly support group for Christian sex workers, where participants share their struggles, read scripture together and pray for each other. The women run the group themselves.
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Jeffrey is a freelance photojournalist who covered the International AIDS Conference for Catholic News Service.