Feature story

Bishop washes feet of HIV-positive women as faith community reach out to people living with HIV

03 August 2008

Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and president of the Lutheran World Federation, washes the feet of two HIV positive women during the August 1 plenary of the Ecumenical Pre-Conference. On the right is Herlyn Marja Uiras, of Churches United Against HIV and AIDS in Southern and Eastern Africa. Third from right is Sophie Dilmitis, HIV and AIDS coordinator for the World YWCA. Between the two women is Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, general secretary of the World YWCA.
Credit: Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance

Engaging in an act of “humility and repentance,” a world church leader began his presentation to an international ecumenical AIDS conference by washing the feet of two women living with HIV.

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Chicago, and president of the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, washed the feet of Herlyn Marja Uiras of Churches United Against HIV and AIDS in Southern and Eastern Africa and Sophie Dilmitis of World YWCA, Geneva.

Hanson was part of a plenary session addressing stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV. He said washing the womens’ feet was the only way he could begin his remarks with integrity.

“I am absolutely convinced that we as religious leaders and we in the religious community that so shunned and shamed people with HIV and struggling with AIDS … must begin first by engaging in public acts of repentance. Because absent public acts of repentance, I fear our words will not be trusted,” he said.

Following the act of repentance, a delegation of religious leaders from the Ecumenical pre-conference went to the Positive Leadership Summit “Living 2008” to share this with the delegates. The religious leaders were warmly received and joined the closing reception of the conference. Delegates from “Living 2008” sent a message to the faith based leaders, conveyed to the closing plenary by members of INERELA+, the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS:

What we most want is simply to be accepted rather than tolerated
Accepted as people living with HIV
Accepted as men who have sex with men
Accepted as people who use drugs
Accepted as people who want families and can be responsible parents
Accepted for who we are.”


The three-day Ecumenical pre-conference was held under the theme of "Faith in Action Now!" and took place in Mexico City on 31 July - 2 August 2008. Approaching 500 participants from all over the world explored the challenges posed by HIV and the AIDS epidemic to people of faith, evaluated action taken, and planned strategies required in the Christian response to HIV and AIDS.

UNAIDS Senior Partnership Adviser Pauline Muchina made a number of presentations and Sally Smith UNAIDS Partnership Adviser led a workshop for faith-based organizations (FBOs) in collaboration with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, on engaging with the recently drafted UNAIDS strategy on Religion and FBOs.

The Ecumenical Pre-conference is just one of several faith-related events in the run up to and during this year’s International AIDS Conference taking place in Mexico City.

On 2 August an evening celebration took place to mark 5 years of advocacy in Africa by ANERELA+, the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS, and to mark the formal launch of INERELA+. The network is based on the power of religion to promote human rights and positive social change. It seeks to be a global movement to challenge HIV-related silence, stigma and discrimination and to advocate for evidence-based prevention and treatment for all.

The Inaugural Summit of Religious Leaders Living with HIV begins on 3 August. It will provide a space for people living with HIV who are religious leaders to discuss their priorities and future plans for a High Level Meeting of Religious Leaders. The summit will concentrate on three topics: overcoming stigma and discrimination; living positively with HIV and mobilizing and empowering faith communities and other religious leaders. INERELA+ will bring together around 50 faith leaders who live with HIV, from a wide variety of faith traditions and countries.

Related feature stories

Feature stories:

Positive Leadership Summit 2008 (31 July 2008)


Watch video of the event

External links:

Ecumenical Pre-Conference 2008: Faith in Action Now!

ANERELA+ (African Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS)