“If God is for us, who is against us?...It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? (Romans 8: 31-34)
The answer to that first question must seem simple to many. The World AIDS Day theme for 2009 is 'Universal Access and Human Rights'. The very idea that there must be a theme to focus an awareness campaign on universal access for life saving drugs and the issue of human rights shows that there are indeed many who are against those who live with HIV/AIDS. God may justify in the end but in the mean time, far too many seem to condemn.
Stigma and discrimination are major factors in HIV/AIDS awareness. Few diseases can cause a person to become a social outcast as quickly as HIV/AIDS. Family, friends, neighbors, church communities, fellow workers – we all know the stories of people diagnosed who have suddenly been alienated from all they knew and love. We all know stories of those who have died alone and forsaken.
And what is the fear? What is the difference between the AIDS pandemic and any other pandemic? Why the particular onus on this one? Would the AIDS pandemic have ever achieved the high level of notoriety it did were it not for the number of gay people affected?
My mom had a friend from high school who had a son that was just a month of so older than me. He and I used to play together when we were little. My mom and she lost touch as we grew up but in the late 80s, they had occasion to meet again. Her friend told my mom that her son had died. She wouldn’t tell my mom how or why but she did say that they burned his belongings, even his mattress. At the time, Mom was shocked that someone would do that. It only occurred to her later as she learned about AIDS that his death might have been AIDS related.
I remember when I was first touched by an AIDS story. As is often the case, the news stories didn’t affect me until it affected someone I knew. The rector at our parish spent his sermon time telling us about his son, Stephen. Actually, I didn’t even know he had a son until that moment. He told us that they had been estranged for some time because Stephen was gay. The problem was not because Stephen was gay, he admitted, but because he, as Stephen’s father, had a problem with Stephen being gay. Having no idea where he was going with the information, we all sat spellbound as he told us how they had only reconnected when he found out that Stephen was dying from AIDS. He then went on to tell us about Stephen’s partner, John and how special he was because John loved Stephen when even his own father could not. There was not a dry eye in the church by the end of the story. I don’t know how many minds our rector changed that day but I do know that he touched every one of us. I do know that out of that story was born an AIDS outreach from that parish to the local AIDS Outreach Center that ran a food pantry and cared for those dealing with end of life issues. The outreach is ongoing today.
Strangely enough, AIDS opened a path from Stephen to his father. Prior to Stephen’s sickness, ignorance clouded his father’s mind. His love for his son could not overcome the disappointment he felt at Stephen being gay. It was in the knowledge of death that the ignorance was lifted and love overcame the fear. Through John’s love and tender care for Stephen, our rector learned true love, that unconditional, steadfast kind.
So many names… So many dead…. So many more dying… What opportunities for learning lie in wait for us as the veil of ignorance and fear is lifted? What unconditional love might be learned as the knowledge of death touches us? What gifts have those who have died left for us? There is still so much to learn…so much to do.
The drugs needed to combat HIV/AIDS are now available for many. As is always the case, the more one can afford, the more one will receive. Those who suffer from poverty and lack of insurance also lack the ability to receive the needed care. Many of the ones dying today are the ones who simply cannot afford to live.
Ignorance that HIV/AIDS is a “gay” disease hinders proper funding to make the anti-retro-viral treatments available to many who live with HIV.
Fear of condoning or even promoting promiscuous sex in our youth and teens prohibits funding for sex education in our schools so that at risk behavior might be lessened.
Major theological battles are in the process within our largest denominations and religions about the right or wrong of being gay.
In the extreme, the government of Uganda is promoting a resolution to not only increase the punishment for being gay but to make it a crime for anyone to help someone who is gay. That means medical workers and pastoral care givers will be at risk of imprisonment when they try to help.
We cannot allow HIV/AIDS to continue being viewed through the eyes of fear and ignorance.
THAT is what this day is all about – raising awareness.. Awareness that the number of people living with HIV has risen from approximately 8 million in 1990 to an estimated 33.4 million people worldwide today and that 2.5 million of those are children;
THAT 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981,
THAT there were 2 million deaths in 2008 alone;
THAT by the end of 2008, women accounted for 50% of all adults living with HIV worldwide
and In North America alone, there are 1.5 million adults and children living with HIV/AIDS.
In addition to all of that, in developing and transitional countries, 9.5 million people are in immediate need of life-saving AIDS drugs but only 42 % of those are actually receiving the drugs.
This is not a “gay” disease… regardless of how it has devastated so many lives of those who happen to be gay.
It is a disease that threatens all people. It is especially a threat to the “least of these” among us – our children and those who live in poverty. One of the fastest growing groups of people in the US living with AIDS is heterosexual women, in particular, teenage girls.
In its short 28 year history, HIV/AIDS has proven to us that it breeds very well in ignorance. It thrives in systems of fear.
HIV/AIDS has shown us that it will not go away on its own. In fact, if we continue on the course we are on, it will only continue to grow.
It is up to us to break the bonds of ignorance and fear.
Whether we do that by urging our national government and church leaders to speak out against the resolution in Uganda,
…Or work to end discriminatory laws at home,
…Or work for the passage of a national health care bill or
…Or medically and pastorally tend to those who have been cast aside due to the stigma of AIDS; regardless of what we do, we must do something.
To ignore the problem is to be a part of the problem.
We know that “creation waits with eager longing…to be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory for the children of God.” Creation is groaning for us to awaken from our slumber.
This is not about being gay. It is about living in love, not in fear. It is about taking care of one another; not condemning that which we do not understand. It is about standing up against that condemnation.
We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper; we have a great amount of work to do.
Let us get on with it.
( statistics come from http://www.avert.org/)