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3 December 2017

In Kenya, an HIV-positive pastor and his wife model new thinking about AIDS

NTHANGE, Kenya (RNS) – They tried to burn down his church and home.

But the arson was hardly the worst of the grief Pastor Samson Mulinge Mutuse has suffered because of others’ fear of AIDS.

AIDS killed his wife in 2013, and his 13-year-old daughter the next year. And when his flock found out that Mutuse himself tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, many abandoned him — and some thought his diagnosis justified the burning of his church.

In Nthange — a small sleepy trading center about 125 miles east of the Kenyan capital where Mutuse pastors Deliverance Church — AIDS has wrecked havoc. The same is true of much of the continent. In 2016, nearly 20 million people were living with the HIV virus in Eastern and Southern Africa, representing the vast majority of people carrying the virus worldwide, according to the U.N.

As in many Kenyan towns, where Christianity and African traditional religion mix freely, people in Nthange dread the virus. Under the giant baobab trees, and in coffee and tea shops, they speak of it in whispers. Those who contract the virus face exclusion once their HIV-positive status becomes known.

But last Saturday (Nov. 25), Mutuse’s wedding showed that there is a different way to treat people with HIV and AIDS. The HIV-positive Pentecostal pastor, 42, married an HIV-negative woman, 39, who had also lost a spouse to AIDS-related complications. In their courtship and marriage — and through their faith — they hope to usher in a new era of tolerance and empathy for those who carry the virus and live with AIDS.

That an HIV-negative woman would take an HIV-positive man for her husband shocked many.

“They can’t imagine this has happened. It is a community still full of stigma and discrimination,” said Mutuse during an interview on the church compound where he had wed just days before.

“People with HIV are isolated and neglected. They are also ostracized in the church and the community,” said his new bride, Evelyn Mueni Mulinge, a primary school teacher who lost her first husband to AIDS in 2006.

But her faith convinced her that she should marry Mutuse, and give him all her love and support, she said. “I was already aware of his status. I know everything about him and I am ready for it.”

Mutuse calls his new wife’s HIV-negative status a blessing, and recalls the days when his first wife fell ill.

Her sickness was hard enough to bear. Then his young daughter developed AIDS. Many of his own congregants responded with rejection — and worse.

“She was in school when the teacher called to say my child had fallen ill. She died while undergoing treatment,” said Mutuse. “Her death hit me hard. I had just lost my wife and now my daughter. I had nothing left, I thought to myself.”

Soon after, there was an exodus from his church with some members of the congregation alleging he was immoral and should no longer serve as pastor of the church he helped found. Among those who remained, some ceased to give tithes and offerings.

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