I have AIDS (and so do you)

You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. – 1 Cor. 12:27

The results of my HIV test at the UCC”s General Synod in 2009: one line – negative; two lines – positive.

I’d first like to clear up that no, I am not HIV positive. I know for sure. I’ve been tested.

But if we take the words of 1 Corinthians 12 seriously, the church – and by that I mean everyone who calls themselves a believer within this Body of Christ – is affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic even if one, as an individual, is not infected.

So what would incite me to make such a radical claim? Why do I believe HIV/AIDS currently carries a different level of importance for people of faith than, say, clean water or malaria?

It is a matter of responsibility.

I’ve recently returned from the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., covering the event as a photographer for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. I’ll be the first to admit that HIV/AIDS has not been my “big issue,” though as a pastor I always involved my congregation in World AIDS Day remembrances, advocated for and supported caregivers, and participated in discussions with my denomination’s HIV/AIDS ministry – UCAN (United Church HIV & AIDS Network.)

I also have a handful of friends living with HIV – all are responding successfully to antiretrorival (ARV) treatments that keep the most damaging symptoms of the virus at bay. They are living long, and relatively healthy, lives. By all appearances, they are no different than me.

And therein is the point of convergence – it’s what finally hit me about the importance of HIV ministries within communities of faith. What is the church to do when those infected look just like me? This question, using the 1 Corinthians 12 text, was posed by Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell of World Evangelical Alliance in Brazil at the closing session of the Faith & AIDS pre-conference to AIDS 2012.

You see, it’s easy to externalize a response to “the sick” – people of faith are fortunately really good at taking care of the sick. It is part of what Jesus commanded the church to do. But as a result, the church’s care for those living with HIV or vulnerable to the virus has largely been seen through the lens of those who are extremely sick with AIDS, ghettoized in sub-cultures, or in remote countries.

Within this context, there are two tales of the church’s reaction to HIV/AIDS and why our current response matters.

The baby of an HIV positive mother smiles as she comforts him with patting. At the time of this photo, the newborn’s HIV status was not yet known.

On the one hand, are the silent thousands who have extended care and comfort to AIDS patients when others wouldn’t – churches (and synagogues, mosques, temples) and ecumenical ministries that have been in the long-game of providing services for those infected. They have been involved in critical care, hospice, testing, counseling, education, and family services that have fallen under the grand radar screen of what some people of faith consider “ministry.” Like the Good Samaritan, they have come to the aid of those who have been discarded by those concerned with respectable religion.

On the other hand (if you hadn’t guessed where this was going), are people of faith who have shunned and condemned those infected with HIV. To them, the virus is a well-deserved punishment for wrong choices – mainly unprotected sex, anal sex, multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug use and the sharing of needles. Infection due to these choices has even been described by some as God’s plague – a necessary act of divine justice – that would rid the world of homosexuals and drug users. Having clearly made immoral choices, they say, God has no choice but to punish the infected for wrong behavior.

If, upon reflecting on this second reaction, you aren’t offended and angry that some people of faith continue to think this way, you may not want to read any further. You aren’t going to like the rest of this post.

As with most moral absolutes, the second response to HIV – judgment, stigma-building, ostracizing – runs into snags when people are personally touched by the disease. These moral absolutes are confronted by those who have gotten the virus from blood transfusions, accidental transfer in emergencies and other rare cases. They are challenged when a family member becomes infected. And they are weak smokescreens for  fear in the light of the infection of the innocent – children who contract the virus from their mothers (becoming more rare, thankfully) or unsuspecting husbands/wives/partners who contract the disease after their partner acquires HIV through sexual activity or drug use.

It is here that the discussion gets murky in the church. Many don’t want to talk about sex and sexuality, condoms use, or about respect and dignity within sexual relations. They don’t want to address homophobia or talk about the mechanics of transmission. And they’d definitely prefer not to educate their children and potentially sexually active young adults regarding safe sexual practices and integrated sexual health. They would rather talk about abstinence as the best method to prevent transmission. (It is. But the church’s response must also be realistic…)

Jack MacCalister marches in a protest calling for better access to generic antiretroviral drugs that help those living with HIV live healthy lives. The July 24 march was part of the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.

This conflict in the church – at times extremely generous and compassionate, and also seen as responsible for inciting a climate of fear, hate and isolation – is why people of faith and conscience are uniquely positioned to, and even bear a burden to, love, educate, provide care for and remove the stigma from those who are HIV positive and those who are vulnerable or made vulnerable to the virus.

I had an interesting discussion with a French ACT Up! member at the conference in which he blamed the Christian community for recently dragging HIV/AIDS treatment and education back 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa. I tried to explain that not all faith groups had an abstinence-only or homophobic approach to prevention and that many were doing good and comprehensive work. It was to no avail, he had seen the worst in some Christians and could not be convinced otherwise.

The Christian organization he encountered primarily works to “save” AIDS orphans, prevent mother-to-child transmission and help women infected by their “whoring” husbands. And he is correct in pointing out that some of these same groups refuse to address the vulnerability of sex workers, men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users.

He’s right in calling this group to task – there can be no moralizing the church’s response to those infected with HIV. The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t involve the Samaritan asking how the man was injured, or chastising him for being on a dangerous road, or withholding care until the injured man made a confession of faith. The Good Samaritan simply showed true love – to a foreigner, to someone who didn’t share his religious convictions, to someone unclean – without question.

And if I’m reading 1 Corinthians 12:23a right, it isn’t so easy for us to pick and choose those for whom we will care either – “The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most.”

A protestor wears a shirt advocating condom use as a preventative step in the spread of HIV at a July 24 march during the 2012 International AIDS Confernece in Wahsington, D.C. (Photo Gregg Brekke/EAA)

I was inspired by a Pentecostal pastor from Malawi who told me he actively preached condom use from the pulpit. When I recounted a conversation I had several years ago with a Kenyan pastor who said he could never speak of such things in church, this Malawian pastor replied, “How can I not [tell people to use condoms?] My calling is to preach life, and it abundantly in Christ. I have no choice … I must preach life.”

People of faith are responsible to proclaim life – it isn’t an option.

HIV now looks like me, and I cannot externalize my response.

HIV is a matter of life and death, and I can’t be selective about who is worthy of care, education, treatment or prevention methods.

HIV lives all around me and I among it, not in stigmatized subcultures or remote corners of the world, and I refuse to separate myself from the HIV positive part of humanity to avoid discomfort.

This post is the first of a three part series on the 19th International AIDS Conference. Part 2 – Let’s Talk About Sex. Part 3 – AIDS and the Good News

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