Churches need to be inspired by the biblical verse Luke 9.2: "He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick." With this inspiration only those who can make healthy communities possible can translate their preaching into visible actions.
These were the words of Karen Sichinga, who serves as a member of the regional reference group for Southern Africa for the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), a project of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
A public health specialist from Zambia, Sichinga, a graduate from the University of Alberta, Canada, and the University of Leeds, England, is the newly elected chairperson of the African Christian Health Associations Platform.
EHAIA is only one of Sichinga's several ecumenical engagements through which she has been working to mobilise churches in building and sustaining healthy communities.
"It is not possible to separate physical health from spiritual health," said Sichinga. "Spiritual health is an integral part of a person's anatomy. It is therefore important that as churches we help and support people who go through terminal illness," she added.
Working currently as executive director of the Churches Health Association of Zambia (CHAZ), Sichinga feels the need for churches to join hands with the health sector. She considers CHAZ an example, as the organisation covers a wide range of curative and preventive health services delivered through CHAZ's network of church hospitals, rural health clinics and community based programmes.
Formed in 1970, CHAZ brings together both Catholic and Protestant organisations. It is the second largest organisation providing health care services in Zambia, particularly in several rural areas. CHAZ represents sixteen local churches (Catholic and Protestant), as well as 146 affiliates.
"At CHAZ we provide communities holistic health services so that people can live healthy and productive lives to the glory of God," stated Sichinga.
"In my 21 years of public health related work, I have found that patients want somebody to listen to them. It is not always about medication and prayer. It is also about paying attention to their psychological and spiritual needs" she said.
"In this situation, apart from supporting the medical treatments, churches can be a place for compassionate hearing, and consequently a healing place."
HIV competent churches
Working as a member of EHAIA, Sichinga considers HIV and AIDS an issue that churches need to be competent enough to deal with.
"With EHAIA initiatives, we try to keep churches informed, keeping them at the forefront of dealing with HIV and getting ready to implement new and effective strategies to address the pandemic," said Sichinga.
According to the World Health Organisation, Zambia is faced with a generalised HIV and AIDS pandemic, with a national HIV prevalence rate of 14.3 per cent among adults of ages 15 to 49.
In this context, Sichinga noted that "HIV is not only a medical issue. It is a social issue, as well as a spiritual issue. With the stigma still attached to people infected with HIV, there is a great need for education among people and the HIV and AIDS organisations who serve in the field."
"We have tools and mechanisms for HIV prevention, including ways of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The uptake of HIV testing also is part of the bigger picture on curbing this infection. Therefore at EHAIA we promote these tools of preventing HIV.
"While we work to eliminate this pandemic and support the ones infected with HIV in our country, we must not forget the spirit with which Jesus healed the people, the non-judgmental spirit. We as Christians must emulate our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ," said Sichinga.
In reference to the WCC's upcoming 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea, Sichinga stressed the need for health and healing to be in the main agenda for churches. "How can the churches not make health and healing a priority, when healing was one of Jesus' great ministries?" she added.
The WCC assembly will take place from 30 October to 8 November 2013, addressing the theme "God of life, lead us to justice and peace".
"The global church should not neglect health and healing, which is an integral part of true Christian ministry," said Sichinga. "The churches also have to lead the sick. To do this, it is essential that churches focus on HIV and their response to this issue."