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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Windows and Mirrors

If you are in the Washington D.C. area I highly recommend you visit the Windows and Mirrors exhibit at First Church UCC’s amazing new downtown building.

The exhibit consists of 45 large murals that depict civilian casualties and reaction to the war in Afghanistan. Artists from around the world including, most powerfully, Afghan children, submitted works contained in this traveling exhibit.

It’s really wonderful to see faith communities encouraging this discussion through visual expression. There are often times when words and discussion fail, but taking a look at these images there is no doubt that visual communications are a way forward.

The exhibit is co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Church of the Brethren, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Mennonite Central Committee US Washington Oce, National Council of Churches, Pax Christi USA, SOJOURNERS, Split This Rock United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

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Some funny, some not – the case of Troy Lee Davis

Yesterday’s [satirical fake news] post on the UCC being indignant about “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” drew over 700 views in its first 24 hours! The (Rev)ision Gregg blog has been running for almost five years, has hundreds of postings and yesterday’s satire accounts for 1/10 of the traffic it has ever received. Amazing…

The truth of satire is that it can lay bare idiosyncratic positions through the use of humor. The appeal of satire is that it cuts close to the quick for those who are “inside” the joke.

But on another note, I can only hope the case of Troy Lee Davis draws nearly as much attention. The state of Georgia has denied clemency or a retrial in his capital murder case even though several prosecution witnesses have recanted and a majority of the evidence points to his innocence, the execution is still scheduled for tomorrow, Sept. 21, 2011.

Is it because he is black? Because he is accused of killing a cop? Because the DA just wants to have someone – anyone – “come to justice.” I’m not sure, but I pray that our states and the nation can come to a better understanding of innocent until proven guilty and end the practice of capital punishment as other seemingly civilized nations have done.

So far, 400,000 individual letters, appeals from Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, and the NAACP have not changed anyone’s mind to even revisit the case.

Please add your voice at any of the links above.

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UCC leaders decry ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’

Written by Gregg Brekke

Cleveland (UC[fake]News) — In an unprecedented act of linguistic justice, leaders in the United Church of Christ have called for a stop to the use of “pirate” language in society. Citing its longstanding position on the use of respectful dialog, leaders of the 1.2 million member U.S.-based Protestant denomination are urging the end of “International Talk Like a Pirate Day,” annually observed Sept. 19.

“We don’t object to pirates,” said one church official that refused to be named. “In fact we love pirates dearly and welcome them into our churches.”

“But I don’t think we’re ready to change our slogan to ‘No matter who you are or where you’ve pillaged and raped, you’re welcome here…’ It just sends the wrong message!” they said.

Several objectionable pirate phrases were lifted up for prayer and discernment with the following commentary, including:

  • Scurvy Dogs – “Not only is it a scientific fallacy to believe a carnivore could contract scurvy, the phrasing is inconsistent with a narrative understanding of scripture. Sure, Jesus called the Syrophonecian woman a ‘dog,’ but we think he was talking to her more as a cute puppy than a slobbering pit bull, that, being one of God’s special creatures, deserves our love and care as does all creation.”
  • Shiver me Timbers – “Though timbers in northern climates may become cold, we feel the anthropomorphic quality of shivering should not be applied to trees, shrubs or various species of thickets. Even though Jesus incorrectly stated that the mustard seed would grow into the largest of trees, he had a good point. Mustard plants could shiver, I guess.”
  • Where’s me Booty? – “Your booty is on your backside. End of discussion. It is not in a trunk buried on some remote island. I don’t know what these kids are talking about these days. Who puts junk in a trunk anyway?”
  • Blow the Man Down! – “You really think I’m going to touch that one?” (That’s what she said!)
  • Thar She Blows! – “Oh, geezey Pete! No comment.”
  • Hornswaggled Landlubber – “The use of the government’s resources to force its will upon international policies is antithetical to the goals of Christ’s church. We pray for an end to war and for taxation policies that don’t fund war and for an end to human trafficking and for food assistance for poor families and for better care for God’s creation and an end to frikin’ fracking and for a new pair of sealskin boots. What was the question?”
  • Swab the Poop Deck – “In an age where human slavery still exists, we demand fair labor conditions and living wages for all workers everywhere. Though it’s really nice to have someone else swab the poop off my deck, they should be paid accordingly.”

Conservative factions of the United Church of Christ strongly support International Talk Like a Pirate Day and have responded with a flurry of irrelevant blog posts.

The Biblical Witless Fellowship had this to say: “The longstanding, Orthodox, position of pirate language is not something we can throw away with every passing wind of political correctness. We can’t give the ol’ heave ho to an entire linguistic tradition just because some scallywag is worried about timbers that God Himself and Jesus Christ His Only Son along with the most Blessed Holy Spirit could shiver if He Himself wanted to!”

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer and Pirating (LGBTQP) associations across the UCC are calling for congregations to study, and possibly vote on the widespread use of pirating language that may or may not create factions in the church.

“We want everyone to feel welcome,” said a spokesperson. “But that’s no reason for me to think we can go on shouting ‘Yo Ho Ho!’  and not raise the ire of hos who have been marginalized by use of this language that is offensive to some but embraced by others who haven’t yet discovered the offensiveness of the language when it is used to offend, even when offense isn’t intended.”

The congregational nature of the United Church of Christ prohibits the denomination from proscribing linguistic standards in its 5,200 local congregations. The denomination is said to “speak to, not for” its churches and their members.

One thing is for sure; the United Church of Christ won’t be speaking to anyone using “Pirate Language” any time soon.


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Writing the Eulogy of Seminary Education

The Rev Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. offers up some great thoughts regarding the potential demise of seminary education and the demands of those called to ministry in THIS ARTICLE on Patheos.com.

One of his main concerns is the devaluing of education by denominations –  by not having high standards for those entering ministry, not paying for a significant portion of their education, having students take on clerical responsibilities before they are ready and, in some cases, making seminary education optional which begs the question of many, “Why incur the expense and inconvenience of seminary if it isn’t required of others?”

Denominations have left seminarians to pay for their educations, saddling them with debt that they cannot comfortably repay because beginning salaries for clergy are often below the poverty level. And, at the same time, they have offered alternative routes to ordination bypassing seminary entirely, leaving those who do go to wonder why they worked so hard to accomplish the same goal. What we will never know is how many prospective clergy are lost because they conclude that if the ministry is something you can do without preparation it isn’t really worthy of their attention.

Schmidt is also concerned that denominations are merely hoping enough new clergy are produced to fill the ever-shrinking open positions as older clergy retire. It isn’t a model of growth, it’s a model of least resistance.

But denominations aren’t his only target. Schmidt criticizes seminaries for hiring instructors with more academic than pastoral/practical ambition. True, he notes, there’s no excuse for a graduate education to lack academic rigour, but the end-game for seminary graduates is ministering to the needs of real people and translating historic wisdom into contemporary application. Theory is fine, but the resulting practice has to impact the lives of people in congregations.

Now Schmidt is an Episcopal priest, and from my seminary education I can say that the requirements were much higher for my Episcopal classmates than they were for those of us in the United Church of Christ. Though I had Greek, Hebrew and Clinical Pastoral Education courses, they were not required for my ordination. The UCC has recently adopted a “multiple paths to ministry” policy that allows local Associations to decide the requirements for ordination within their region.

Some of those Associations may choose not to require seminary, or even not to require any college education, prior to ordination. This is a major problem, according to Schmidt, in that sending ministers who are unprepared to deal with the complexities of modern life is a disservice to the church.

I often tell my students, “If you were laying in the operating room and some one bounded in and declared, ‘Hi, I’m Fred, and I don’t know a thing about anatomy or the practice of medicine, but I just love the idea of serving God through surgery,’ you would use your remaining moments of consciousness to roll off the gurney and claw your way down the hall.

A larger question may be whether the lowering of clerical education standards, and Schmidt’s assertion of confusion within the ranks of seminaries, happened before or after denominational financial decline.

The elephant-in-the-room questions for me is, “Are denominations lowering their standards in response to their declining revenue or is it a response to the inability of clergy candidates to afford seminary education?”

Thankfully, rather than merely criticize the current state of seminary education, Schmidt offers some good food for thought on how denominations, seminaries and clergy candidates can work together to produce better prepared clergy.


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Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus

Yep, that’s the headline on a recent article by Phil Zuckerman at The Huffington Post.

His premise is based on his read of the results from a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that he says statistically proves what social scientists have previously claimed: “White Evangelical Christians are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus.”

Zuckerman really digs into the evangelical zeal for “loving” Jesus as a savior, but not so much in his teachings of mercy, forgiveness and communal responsibility:

Before attempting an answer, allow a quick clarification. Evangelicals don’t exactly hate Jesus — as we’ve provocatively asserted in the title of this piece. They do love him dearly. But not because of what he tried to teach humanity. Rather, Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can’t stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself — his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill — most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain.

Provocative food for thought on the collusion of conservative political, religious and social thought…

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Darkwood Brew (You May Not Like It)

I had the pleasure of visiting the Darkwood Brew online-interactive faith service last weekend.

The service is a mix of a real face-to-face church service in a coffee shop, online web streaming of a live “show”, and an interactive social-media experience via Facebook at the streaming site.

Very impressive. Much like a live TV show, the coffee shop is buzzing with a floor manager, two handheld cameras, two fixed mount cameras, cable handlers, technical producers, etc. The backroom is a fairly sophisticated media studio where the director and a technician call the show with all the necessary goodies.

The Rev. Eric Elnes makes last minute adjustments to the service flow prior to the live broadcast of Darkwood Brew from the Common Grounds coffee shop at Countryside Community UCC in Omaha, Neb.

On the other hand, it is a real church service held at Countryside Community UCC in Omaha, Neb. Real people are there participating with a real pastor, the Rev. Eric Elnes. It’s a casual environment with lounge chairs, tall tables and an espresso bar. Live (excellent) jazz music is interwoven through the service, prayers are said, scripture is read and reflected upon, a sermon is given, guest speakers appear and communion is shared.

What is completely different though is the online and interactive nature of Darkwood Brew. The special guest speaker was live via Skype. Prayers and questions came through social-media chats. Video introduction and examples were delivered on flat-screen TVs throughout the seating area and via the live stream.

It is a great experiment in what church might look like in a social-media driven world. Not abandoning tradition – in some cases restoring ancient traditions – while embracing our current realities and looking toward the future. It seems to me this is something that courageous Christians have been doing through each phase of “reformation” the church has experienced.

We’ll be doing a story on the service in the upcoming issue of StillSpeaking Magazine so, if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe so you get this great story.

The trip was also personally rewarding. I’ve known Eric Elnes for several years though we’ve never met. The Darkwood Brew technical producer, Scott Griessel, and I have been working together for some time too – he’s a regular photo and story contributor to StillSpeaking Magazine and has done some video assignments for me in Arizona – though we’d never met either.

It was great to have face-time with these friends. We all commented that, though our first time meeting, we were so familiar with one another that it didn’t seem that way. Pretty cool – and a testimony to the power of social media that has enabled us to be friends prior to meeting.

Check out the Darkwood Brew archives on Vimeo and tune in Sunday evenings at 6pm EST/5pm CST for a really unique and prophetic experience.


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