Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Loving 'the other' in the shadow of HIV/AIDS

Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan - Published in The Fiji Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How do I as a father, a husband, a Christian, a human being engage with the issue of HIV/AIDS?

This was the question with which I ended this column last week.

This week I would like to continue this reflection, especially in the light of the launch, earlier this week, of the Report of the Commission on AIDS in the Pacific, "Turning the Tide: an OPEN strategy for a response to AIDS in the Pacific.

The OPEN strategy recommended in the report calls for ownership, partnerships, empowering and enabling and networking so that there is an inclusive response to HIV/AIDS.

This means that all levels of the society need to take ownership of the HIV epidemic.

One of the strongest pleas made by the President of Fiji, the Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa (chair of the Commission on AIDS in the Pacific), United Nations representatives, HIV positive people and a host of others actively working to stop the spread of HIV was for churches and other faith-based organisations to fully commit and become involved in the HIV/AIDS issue.

The Nadi Declaration on HIV/ AIDS by Pacific Churches in 2004 was not only a call to face the facts on HIV in the Pacific but a call to repentance for the way Christians have dealt with the issue, especially in our response to people living with HIV/AIDS.

For far too long we who call ourselves Christian have been blind to the suffering of other members of the body of Christ.

We are deaf to their cries.

We forget that, "if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it," (1 Corinthians 12:26).

The scales of prejudice, ignorance and fear prevent us from recognising God's presence in every person.

Our attitudes toward sexuality prevent us from looking at HIV/AIDS as an issue of life and death and caring and being concerned with the needs of our biblical neighbours - the other, the stranger.

Our love for each other has become so conditional that many of us have lost the ability to have compassion for those who are different from us.

The OPEN Strategy highlights the need to link up so that we can work together on this issue rather than just "doing our own thing" and working in isolation.

Our actions must not just be one-off or ad hoc but need to be consistent and build on the work or add support to the work of others.

It also calls for our support for people who are either involved in combating this epidemic or who are its casualties must be more than lip service or pity.

Encouragement, caring for the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS, enabling them to continue to have a meaningful life empowers them to not only hold on to life and hope but to be symbols of hope and life for others.

In the Gospel of Matthew (25:34-40), the Christ says in a parable,

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'.

As a traditional force of positive influence in the community, the churches of the Pacific need to be agents of God's transforming grace by helping our people find the courage to face the truth about HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in the Pacific, speaking out against discrimination and stigmatisation of people at most risk to HIV and STIs, people living with HIV and by talking about these issues and others such as violence against women and children with words that are characterised by respect, love, forgiveness and intimacy.

Churches and other faith-based organisations need to actively educate their communities of faith- theologically and pastorally on HIV and STIs, support and counsel them for testing and advocate holistic care and treatment for those living with HIV.

All human beings are called, by whatever spiritual path they follow, to transform fear into love.

This transformation is key to transforming the darkness of despair associated with HIV/AIDS into the light of hope.

For more on the Nadi Declaration on HIV/AIDS by Pacific Churches visit -

May the rest of your week be blessed with God's transforming grace.

* Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mai Word: Of Tsunamis and Tsunamus

Published in Mai Life Magazine - April, 2010
On Friday, the cyclone formed and school was cancelled. On Saturday,the cyclone winked and the women’s fellowship meeting was cancelled. On Sunday, despite prayers by some members of the congregation, church was not cancelled. By Monday the cyclone was officially a hurricane, everything else was cancelled. As I debated how to follow DISMAC’s instructions to secure our property (tying up thechildren?) and move my car to a secure place without breaking the curfew, I noticed people making mad dashes to the corner shop to get essential rations such as the newspapers, bread for breakfast,soft drinks and snacks to go with hastily procured DVDs. It was like watching the Great Escape in reverse.

My family battened down the hatches to our rabbit warren, while I wondered around like a handyman on steroids,taking hammer and nail or gaffer tape to anything that flapped, shook, rattled and hummed. I did pause to ponder on what my boss who art in heaven might think of the ease with which I took to pounding nail into wood.

As the wind began to pick up the emergency meeting of the Mission-Hill Disasterwatch board began with radio and torch in hand – in one hand so that the other could hold the sacred coconut cup. I realised that too much information can be a dangerous thing as we debated what was the true strength and speed of the hurricane, the correct path and what sort of storm determined a male or female name – each of us quoting newspaper, radio and internet sources,including a NASA satellite image of the Pacific. We argued as if we had taught Rajendra Prasad of the Meteorological Centre himself. The meeting was adjourned to collect more evidence as well as more kava.

Just as darkness began to fall the water was cut off, followed within minutes, by the electricity. There was momentary panic, as the realisation that there might not be enough water to mix kava, drink,bathe, wash or even mix...
er...kava (priorities!) hit,and the confusion of why,when the cyclone had not reached, the electricity was off. Was it about to hit? Had there been an accident? Did we pay the bill? Was it a conspiracy? Thankfully,it was none of the above,merely the Fiji Electricity Authority trimming branches before the night and winds came. Within 20 minutes we were assured of a night of television and DVDs for some and a basin or five of water for our powered courage for others.

The curfew started, heralding the Mission-Hill Hurricane Action Team to meet for another emergency session as one important fact seemed to have been overlooked – where to procure kava from in case our current supply ran out and it was still too wet and windy to pound more. For the next there were serious deliberations of whether the police would recognise kava shops as providing an essential service. The discussions were shelved when the media arrived.We prepared ourselves to give an update of the effect of the cyclone on Furnival Park but were disappointed when neither of the journalists appeared to be holding a pen, pad, camera or tape recorder. The frown of disappointment turned upside down when we realised that they had laid aside the tools of their trade in order to bring, hermetically sealed and attached to floats with GPRS tracking, the source of the earlier discussion on essential services – brown powdered stuff.

I feel I must, in the light of the devastation caused by Hurricane Tomas,clarify that none of us took the potential threat of the impending storm...well...lightly. We shared with each other what precautions we had taken, for the hurricane outside as well as the storm that might rage inside the house should we be gone for too long. Each of us proudly held up our torches and radios.I did think it odd that we each had our own and whetherleaving it for those in the house to use would have been a better idea. We shared stories from previous natural disasters. Eager to get involved, as one of the youngest of the MHHAT (sadly we had now begun to use acronyms), I shared my experience during the tsunami alert of 2006.

I was a final year student at the Pacific Theological College and my family was the first in the college to learn of the tsunami alert. According to my calculations the tsunami was going to hit in either 15minutes, one hour and 15 minutes, or had in fact already hit. As student body president, I informed the college principal of the situation and said that I would help in the evacuation. My family began preparations. I dashed around and woke up my fellow students and lecturers asking them to come to the community hall for an emergency meeting. By this stage the first 15 minutes were up so we were either dead or had another hour. I popped my head into my flat to find my wife trying to fit five packs of diapers, baby formula,clothes, toys and essentials into two bags, while my mother was tidying the house and putting things out of reach of the water. After a brief (in Pacific/Fiji Time) meeting we began to evacuate. I went to move my family so that I could concentrate on evacuating the rest of my family to find my mother making a cup of tea, in case she couldn’t get a decent “cuppa” for a few days. The first family to hear the news of the impending disaster were one of the last to leave the college,lightly packed with two suitcases and a duffle bag full of only baby things.

So that was the tsunami story. As for “tsunamu,” I find it just the right description for those giant two-legged mosquitoes (namu) that appear late into the evening’s session, drink your kava or (fit appropriate beverage here), choke your chaser, your cigarettes and then ask you to drop them home after. I find a sermon and a long prayer helps get rid of all but the most determined of them.Happy Easter and have a safe month!

A sunbaked, self-confessed Jesus-freak, Padre James Bhagwan spends his time between doing laps in the pool, lecturing at Davuilevu Theological College, preaching at Dudley Methodist Church, playing with his children and driving his

A new lens on HIV/STDs

Published in The Fiji Times, Wednesday 21st April, 2010

I was happy to read of the HIV Prevention and Treatment Decree (FT 20/4/2010) which is expected out in the next few months.

That this decree will make it illegal to stigmatise a person on the ground that the person is living with HIV is an important step to address not only the discrimination that people living with HIV face but also the stigma associated with HIV as well as other Sexually Transmitted Infections.

It has taken some very brave women and men to step forward to tell their stories and put a human face to this epidemic.

Their struggle for acceptance within their families and communities, and to face an uncertain future while retaining hope and embracing the present is a lesson for all of us on our own prejudices and misconceptions about who can contract HIV and under what circumstances.

But there are many more who find themselves unable to disclose their status for fear of rejection and reprisal, or denial about their condition.

With the amount of literature available and agencies, community groups and individuals providing HIV/AIDS awareness and education, it is only our own attitude towards HIV that prevents us from understanding the true nature of this pandemic instead of believing the myths.

The article was of particular interest to me because this week I am in Nadi for a UNICEF-organised Pacific Sub-regional consultation on the Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT) of HIV.

I find myself among doctors, nurses, midwives, lab technicians and counsellors from around the Pacific, along with representatives of UNICEF, UNAIDS and UNFPA, ambassadors from the Fiji Network for People living with HIV, as well as the Pacific Conference of Churches. The consultation is focused on scaling up the prevention of parent-to-child transmission of HIV. This includes discussing the possibilities of integration of PPTCT services as well as setting standards, guidelines and policies for the region in maternal and child care services, counselling and testing of HIV and reproductive healthcare, including family planning.

Until recently this issue was termed as "Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission" and the change in terminology to "Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission" broadens the issue to address the involvement of men, especially expectant fathers in this important issue.

Our responsibilities to our wives and partners and to our children should include partnership in ante natal care (before birth), including agreeing to be tested if the expectant mother is diagnosed as HIV positive, continuing into post natal (following birth). It is not just an issue about HIV but more importantly about shared responsibility in parenthood.

While some of us have difficulty engaging in the issue of HIV from the point of view of sexuality, this issue is about families, about our children and ensuring that they have the best possible chance of having a healthy life.

As the ambassadors of people living with HIV shared the fear of a HIV-positive mother for her baby each time she took the child for testing after birth, I recalled my fear as I watched my wife give birth to each of my two children.

Would they be alive?

Would they be normal?

What was that fear compared to a mother who asked herself, "Will my baby be diagnosed with HIV?"

Before rushing into condemnation of women who are HIV-positive having children, it is important we understand that a number of women are only diagnosed as being HIV-positive when they are tested during their ante natal clinic visits.

Our climbing onto "the moral high ground" must be tempered with the appreciation that many of these women have been faithful to their husbands or partners and it is from either the unfaithfulness of these husbands/partners who become infected with HIV and the lack of men voluntarily undergoing HIV testing.

Recently Health Ministry permanent secretary Dr Sala Saketa was quoted as saying that the burden of responsibility should not be placed on one part of the community and it was important to have a law which would give a shared responsibility on HIV testing and reporting.

An issue raised during the discussion on HIV testing and pre and post-testing counselling was the role of ministers, pastors or religious and community leaders in the Pacific context when communities are small and in rural and remote islands where professional counsellors are not available and given the cultural context, more approachable than counsellors who are already stigmatised as "AIDS counsellors".

For this to take place, ministers or other religious leaders need to include in their pastoral counselling training, components on HIV/AIDS.

More than that, they need to look at HIV/AIDS not as an issue of morality but as an issue of life and death.

For Christians we look to Christ who came that we may all have life and life in abundance.

On April 8 this year, leaders from the Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and Pentecostal churches signed a statement of commitment which includes the following words:

"We, Christian Church leaders in Papua New Guinea recognise the HIV epidemic as a very special Cross to be carried in our time. The HIV epidemic affects all aspects of our living our cultural norms and practices socio-economic conditions, economic development, human responsibility, issues of gender, sexuality and morality, marriage and family life. Papua New Guinea is seen as a Christian country. If we are to live according to Christianity and to be seen as genuine, then our response to the HIV epidemic must be similar to that of the "Good Samaritan", a response in the spirit of Christian love and sacrifice that we become true neighbours to one another!"

The statement, which is to be launched on May 5, goes on to say that, "the AIDS crisis is bringing us together because we are living with HIV and AIDS.

We need to share knowledge, understanding and experience from our various religious communities so that our united efforts become more effective and inclusive.

Through this, we will seek to establish a new culture of ecumenical and interfaith co-operation; respecting the uniqueness within our traditions while focusing on our shared values of human dignity and human rights."

In the absence of a functioning national council of churches in Fiji, it would take both the leaders and those on the ground to commit to a meaningful Christian response to the HIV crisis that is in line with declarations statements made and endorsed by the church leaders of the Pacific in the "Nadi Declaration" of 2004 and at the Pacific Conference of Churches General Assembly in Pago Pago in 2007, both of which had representatives of Fiji churches.

Sitting amidst healthcare workers who are passionate about preventing the spread of this epidemic holistically and are examining how to improve their work remembering the human face of the lives involved, I am inspired to recommit to engaging in this issue in a more meaningful way. Not just as a talatala or a lecturer but as a husband, a father, as a human being.

How about you?

May the rest of your week be blessed with simplicity, serenity and spontaneity and the courage to act with compassion.

* Reverend JS Bhagwan is a member of the faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the associate minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Mr Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

Into the potter's hands

Published in the Fiji Times, Wednesday 14th April, 2010

There are times when very bad things happen to us. Injustice, abuse, violation, dispossession and oppression come in so many forms these days. Women and children are particularly vulnerable, but men, while often perpetrators, are also victims. Incidents of violence, sexual assault and other gross injustices continue to shock our communities, bringing pain, trauma, anger and frustration. We lash out, distraught at the lack of love or respect for basic human dignity.

We who are not directly affected sometimes ask ourselves, "What if it happened to someone in my family; someone I love?" I recently asked myself this question. Would my pain, my rage, desire for retribution break my Christian yoke of forgiveness and love?

I received the following email. It contained no author information, so I merely thank the person who wrote it and whoever sent it to me.

The email quotes Paul's Epistle to the Romans 8:28 - "We are assured and know that all things work together and are for good to and for those who love God and are called according to design and purpose."

The email goes on to say: "Continuing to trust God is the key to victory in painful and seemingly unjust situations. Faith and prayer move the hand of God. If we continue believing, He promises to continue moving in our behalf to work everything out for good. God makes this promise to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We must love God with all of our hearts, and we must want His will. We must be willing to submit to His plan at all times."

The plan that God has for us eventually changes us into His image. We are destined to be molded into His image. That may sound spiritual, but in reality, it usually hurts. I often think of clay being pressed into a mold, and wonder how the clay would feel if it had feelings.

Being changed into an entirely different shape would probably be painful. If we take a lump of clay and press it into a mold, there is always too much clay to fit, and some pieces must be discarded. I found that there was more of me than would fit into the mold of Jesus Christ, so many of my thoughts, words, and actions had to be discarded."

We must go through things that are difficult and learn how to respond to them the way Jesus would. We must not give way to the fearful thoughts and feelings that attack us. We must learn to remain steadfast, knowing that no matter how things appear now, God will work them out for our good -and in the process, He will use them to make us better people."

God's purpose in everything that happens is to make us more like Jesus Christ. Jesus was the totally obedient one. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered (Hebrews 5:8)."

We also learn through what we suffer. We learn from God's Word and life's experiences. Because of our sinful nature, we tend to fight God at every point, but this only makes the process longer and more painful. Learn to surrender quickly, and save yourself a lot of agony. I've learned that God gets His way in the end, so why prolong the process? "

Where the mind goes the man follows. Keep your mind going in the right direction, and your life will catch up with it. A person who has their faith firmly planted in God cannot be defeated. The Bible says that Joseph's brothers hated him, but God was with him.

God gave him favor and promoted him, so we see that his faith in God lifted him above his circumstances."

"Some terrible things happened to Joseph. His brothers sold him to slave traders and told his father a wild animal had killed him. He was betrayed by those whom he served and tried to help, but God was watching him all the time. God had a good plan for Joseph, and it came to pass. He ultimately said that although the things that happened to him were originally meant for harm, God intended it for good."

This same thing is true for all of us. Satan cannot defeat us if we keep believing that God is working for our good, and that we are being continually transformed into His image."

I sincerely hope that in whatever struggle or suffering you are going through, these words will give you some measure of comfort, peace and hope.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light, peace and the strength and courage to face every challenge with positivity.

nRev. J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Recognising the Christ in Others

I am sure that I am not the only minister, pastor or church leader that is grateful for the Easter Monday public holiday.

While Holy Week and Easter Sunday can be spiritually empowering and energising, it can also be physically exhausting with daily Holy Week and Easter Sunday sunrise services, as well as other Sunday services.

However, the combined Dudley and Wesley Circuits Sunrise Service at Ratu Sukuna Park on Easter Sunday was a wonderful event with about 250 to 300 parents, children, young people and even a few just out of the clubs, gathering as a community of faith to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

The soul stirring gospel music of the Police Praise and Worship team, the traditional hymns and a powerful sermon by Rev. Isireli Kacimaiwai, led us to the celebration of Holy Communion administered by ministers from the Indian Wesley Divisions based in Suva.

All this was followed by a communal breakfast for the congregation and those who call the streets home, or were just hungry after a long night on the town.

I was privileged to be able to reflect on this in the two services I led and preached at later on Easter Sunday. The given theme and text pointed to Mary Magdalene's (for my non-Christian brothers and sisters, she was one of Jesus' closest female followers) inability to recognise not only the significance of the empty tomb (along with Peter) but she also did not even recognise the risen Christ when he chose to appear to her before any other.

One of the things I spoke about on Easter Sunday, following reflection on the Holy Scriptures, is that there are times when we get so caught up in our own problems, in our world and comfort zones, we block out and remain oblivious to not only what is going on around us, but at the same time, those who we encounter, who manifest the Christ light in our lives.

In November, 2008, I wrote in this column that, "In our busy lives, with so many pressing personal issues to deal with, how often do we stop to look and see, to recognise and acknowledge the saints in our lives - parents, siblings, teachers, friends, colleagues, strangers - those whose advice, actions and support have helped us in our life's journey?"

The point I was making about a year and a half ago was that regardless of our how we express our faith in the divine, we can all express our thanks for those who have had faith in us and those who have been there for us, whether we understood it at the time or not. Let us learn to recognise the saints in our lives. Perhaps in doing so, we can also recognise the unconditional divine love that is manifested through them.

Perhaps it is because we fail to acknowledge that everyone has some measure of goodness and positivity in them. We stereotype people on the basis of gender, ethnicity, culture and social status. We assume that people are either all good or all bad. In doing so, we deny them the very understanding, respect, appreciation, love and dignity that we all desire for ourselves.

Not only that, when we limit our interaction with those we find ourselves encountering, we limit not only the opportunity to love our God through our love of neighbour, but also miss out on possible lessons and life-changing experiences.

In this day and age, self promotion or campaigning for the attention or support of the general public has become so important for many leaders (political, religious and in the community), that those who serve humbly and quietly are often ignored for those who serve with perhaps less love and more noise.

Perhaps we have become too used to elaborate and pompous gestures that are otherwise empty, that place more importance on the image than the intention and effect of the action or service performed.

We condition ourselves to only associate with those who fit our personal views of what is good. We neglect the unwashed saints we meet.

Or maybe we are just too caught up with our own problems, our struggles and pain to recognise the suffering of others. We act as if we have the weight of the world on our shoulders, and instead of being inspired by those who not only are willing to bear their own burdens but help us carry ours, we selfishly drain their positive energy without realising the gift that they are giving us.

To recognise the saints among us, we need to become more aware of the holiness of unconditional love and the sacredness of all life.

When we look into the eyes of the poor, the outcast, the ex-offender, even those we assume to ideologically different from us - and seeing the divine spark shining back at us we acknowledge the natural goodness and love within them, we are responding with the very same spark that God has placed within us.

As you go about your day today, keep an eye out for the saints you may encounter. And you never know, others may be keeping an eye out for you.

May the rest of your week be blessed with the love, light and peace of the Risen Christ.

Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not necessarily that of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.