MANILA, Philippines — This man of God found life and love despite a dreaded malady.
South African Reverend Christo Greyling was a hopeful 23-year-old seminarian who was to marry his girlfriend in six months when he tested positive for HIV, a retrovirus that can lead to the deadly acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
It was 1987, and South Africa, which then registered a less than one-percent prevalence of HIV, had yet to acknowledge the creeping epidemic.
Greyling thought he had lost not only Liesl, the love of his life, but also his dream of becoming a pastor who would inspire people with more than the usual songs and sermons.
But 19 years later, he is alive, happily married, and a father of two healthy daughters –Anika and Mia.
He is also the new face of hope for HIV/AIDS victims, who continue to suffer in silence.
“God has an excellent sense of humor. Indeed, I turned out to be a kind of reverend different from [what I wanted to be]. I am an HIV-positive reverend,” said the 43-year-old pastor during a dialogue Tuesday with various government agencies, churches and media groups in Quezon City.
Greyling and his wife are in the country for the four-day launch of an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign of the World Vision Development Foundation-Philippines.
The program taps Philippine churches and faith-based organizations in starting community-based HIV programs to help avert a “hidden and growing” incidence of AIDS and HIV in the country.
The National Epidemiology Center recorded a total of 2,857 HIV and AIDS cases from January 1984 to May 2007, of whom 1,005 are overseas Filipino workers.
“But HIV is [now] a preventable and manageable virus. It doesn’t need to be a death sentence any longer,” said Greyling, now a global HIV/AIDS advisor for World Vision, a partnership of Christians in nearly 100 countries dedicated to working with the world’s most vulnerable children, families and communities.
He celebrated in April his 19th wedding anniversary with Liesl, who remains HIV-free.
“It can be done. You can protect your loved ones from getting infected,” he said.
Greyling contracted HIV during eye surgery in 1984. A hemophiliac, he was infused with the blood concentrate he needed to prevent profuse bleeding during the operation.
Unfortunately, he said, the concentrate that came from America was contaminated.
He recalled telling Liesl to leave him instead of suffering the stigma with him.
But Liesl refused to abandon their plan to marry.
“I love him too much … If I left him and found somebody else to love, I will always wonder how it would have been with Christo,” she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer after the three-hour dialogue.
The day Liesl was told the bad news — at Greyling’s dormitory room in front of his close friends — was also the day she accepted the thought that they could not have children.
“It was a minor issue. It was more important for me to have Christo, and to be with him as long as possible,” she said.
Of course, Liesl said, their situation was difficult to accept. But instead of surrendering to despair, she read all the information she could get about HIV/AIDS.
“I believe that if you have knowledge, it takes away fear,” Liesl said.
They married on April 3, 1988, Greyling’s birthday, and went on a honeymoon like ordinary newlyweds.
But they made sure to bring a supply of condoms, the couple said.
Greyling disclosed his condition to his parents on the eve of his wedding, but Liesl’s parents were told only eight months later.
The first few years were rather rigid for the couple. They were so careful that when Greyling had a cut, for example, he shooed Liesl away and did not let her help.
“But we adjusted to normal life in time. We have become more relaxed now,” Liesl said.
They considered the idea of having children after they stumbled on a research study showing that antiretroviral drugs could reduce the virus to undetectable levels.
“We tried on the first month of my [medication] at Liesl’s most fertile time, and it worked,” Greyling said.
Anika and Mia are now 4 and 2 years old, respectively.
Greyling stressed that they were not promoting the use of antiretroviral drugs in order to engage in unprotected sex.
“There should be protection all the time. Ours is proof that you can protect a person from infection,” he said.
Husband and wife said they were living a normal life, including entertaining friends in their Stellenbosch home.
Greyling said he had not fallen ill for a long time now, and could eat anything.
“Sometimes we forget that he is sick. It is the people who remind us of his condition,” Liesl said, chuckling.
Like other people with HIV/AIDS in their lives, the couple had had their share of “branding” and discrimination.
Once at a regular visit to a clinic, Liesl had her turn only after all the patients had been attended to. At one church event, a pastor forbade Greyling from drinking from the cup, she recounted.
But to them, these incidents were just a small price to pay in empowering HIV/AIDS victims, who, unlike them, have no support system.
“For five years, we lived together without telling anybody. But we decided to use this as a ministry and teach people from first-hand experience the realities of the virus and help break the stigma,” Liesl said.
Greyling has been crossing borders to spread the Channels of Hope, a program he developed to administer HIV ministries at the grassroots.
The World Vision Development Foundation’s campaign is anchored on this program, in which religious and church leaders from a community are invited for a three-day workshop to encourage them to become the source of love and understanding for HIV/AIDS victims in their communities, explained HIV/AIDS specialist RJ Salida.
He said these trained religious leaders would return to their communities and recruit lay leaders to begin HIV ministries.
“We have to give serious attention to this before the virus comes knocking at the door of every Filipino home,” added Elnora Avarientos, foundation executive director.