AIDS and American Religion:
An Issue of Blood
by Rev. Kenneth T. South
AIDS National Interfaith Network
Matt: 9:20-21 "And behold a women, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, If I may but touch the hem of his garment, I shall be whole." (King James)
AIDS is an Issue of blood. The HIV virus that causes AIDS can only live in human blood, in fact in the very core of our physical beings as humans, in the DNA. AIDS is transmitted by blood. The body fluids containing the white blood cells that harbor the HIV virus, pass it from one person to another. Blood infected with HIV is still infecting hordes of people around the world where testing blood serum is too expensive or not a priority. Men with hemophilia contracted HIV trying to help their blood clot by taking "factor eight" made from the blood products of thousands of well meaning donors, some of them, however HIV infected. A majority of women are infected by their male partners who have contracted HIV from blood left on needles shared in drug rituals. A handful of health care workers have been stuck with hypodermic needles and inadvertently received the HIV infected blood of their patients. All babies born to mothers with HIV share their blood and up to one third can end up sharing the virus as well. Families continue to be torn apart because their children, their parents, their siblings, their relatives, their flesh and blood, are dying prematurely. And yet all transmission of HIV is preventable, all methods of sharing this virus from one person to another can be stopped with education, improved technology, and the will to face the challenge of AIDS for what it is.
While the HIV virus lives in the nucleus of the human cell, the core of the AIDS epidemic is a spiritual journey. While the AIDS pandemic is a medical/scientific challenge, while it is a social epidemic that tears at the very fiber of society by enraging all the sexism, racism, classism and homophobia within us, while it is a financial catastrophe around the world and here in the U.S., while it is the most politically driven public health emergency we have ever known, it still, at its center, above all else, a spiritual phenomena. It is a spiritual struggle for us to acknowledge the truth about our relationships with one other and our fears about our relationships with a high power that some of us call God. AIDS is about life and death, about living life into death, about death of the body and healing of the spirit, about joy in the midst of suffering, about knowing the love of the spirit in the midst of bigotry, hatred, abandonment and fear. People in the recovery world have a saying, "Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there already."
For all of us trying to minister in this epidemic, AIDS continues, however, to be a nightmare, a glimpse of hell. For the last fifteen years, it's been a battle ground in which science has waged its war on a virus, activists have battled with each other and against "principalities and powers", forces of hate and bigotry have cost the lives of thousands, and people with AIDS have been pitted against a cosmic clock, a clock that ticks for all, but seems to move faster for some. The epidemic is demanding of us all to find better science, better ways of moving the governments of this world to action for their own people, better ways of caring for each other, better ways of ensuring that others don't have to endure this nightmare. Many of us in the religious community have been around since the beginning of this ride through hell, through "the valley of the shadow of death," and many of us agree that AIDS is essentially, if not ultimately, a spiritual journey.
The advent of this epidemic has meant dramatic changes for all levels of society. It has changed how we understand our sexuality and its expression, how we re-define relationships, how we do science, how we want health care to serve us, how we do public health, how oppressors and the oppressed interact. The religious community has not been immune to this whirlwind of change, but, in fact, has struggled along with the rest of the society to respond in ways that make a difference.
People from all civilizations through time, have struggled with three basic questions; "who am I", "where have I come from" and "where am I going", these inquiries are essentially spiritual questions. The advent of AIDS in the midst of a very youthful population of Americans in the last fifteen years, has intensified these questions and some others as well. "What did I do to deserve this?" "If there is a God, how can a thing like AIDS happen?" "Am I worth taking care of my body?" "Is there any way any of this makes sense?" "Why should I go on living when all my friends and loved ones are gone?", "Mom, why do I have to die?" "Why me?" "Will I ever be forgiven for what I have done in the past?" "Is there really any thing beyond this life?"
The reality of AIDS, in all its various manifestations, causes anyone on this journey to seek answers to these questions. Science, law, sociology, politics, medicine, and even psychology do not, in themselves, pretend to provide answers to these spiritual dilemmas.
Spiritual journeys all start at the same place, the heart. John Fortunate reminds us,in his book AIDS the Spiritual Dilemma, "By spiritual I am referring to that aura around all of our lives that gives meaning, the search for a sense of belonging". Matthew Fox says, from his book Creation Spirituality "What is common to all paths that are spiritual is, of course, the Spirit-breath, life energy, that is why all true paths are essentially one path, because there is only one Spirit, one breath, one life, one energy in the universe. It belongs to none of us and all of us. We all share it. Spiritually does not make up otherworldly; it renders us more fully alive."
AIDS and the reality of human mortality it brings has clearly been a motivation for many Americans to re-examine their faith. After all, scripture reminds us, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)
Some people of faith, however, not only believe for themselves, but force on others the notion that there is only "one way" on the spiritual journey to meaning. For those of us involved in the day to day life of AIDS ministry it is clear that much harm has been done to persons with AIDS by segments of American religion. Homophobic campaigns of hate, bigotry and discrimination have caused serious damage to the hearts and souls of people already stigmatized by a fatal disease. It is completely understandable why some individuals want to distance themselves from "the church" because of the acute amount of pain inflected on them by church leaders who condemn them to hell or consider them "intrinsically evil" because their God-given sexual orientation happens to be homosexual. For many who work in the AIDS community the church has become the enemy. In recognition of this reality, the AIDS National Interfaith Network has sought to be "the AIDS people to the religious community and the religious people to the AIDS community" - not an easy task. The advent of AIDS has also, however, provided a means for a re-examination of what faith means for us, how we find it, how we nurture it and how we can share it with others. A quote from The Color of Light, a helpful daily AIDS meditation book from Hazelden Press, says, "the real test is not whether faith makes more sense than fear. The real test is how our lives change. Is life better when we trust in a force for good?"
There are numerous paths open these days to those who seek a spiritual journey that can lead to understanding, serenity, an awakening, and a deeper sense of love for themselves and others. Many people will choose to find their truth through the traditional path of organized religion, increasing numbers of people are finding alternatives from twelve step programs to meditation practices.
Contrary to common understanding, traditional religion in America has made a substantial commitment to the spiritual journey for those both infected and affected by HIV. Over the last fifteen years of the epidemic, the faith community has organized over 2,000 AIDS ministries in the United States. The AIDS National Interfaith Network was formed in 1987 by representatives from Christian, Jewish, Unitarian, and other religious groups, including the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches to improve the networking of these ministries and, equally as important, to provide a religious, prophetic voice, within federal AIDS public policy on Capitol Hill.
There are so many AIDS ministries of different kinds that ANIN had to create categories so we could compare apples with apples. Congregational AIDS Ministries include programs like the housing program for IV drug users at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle. There are AIDS ministries within religious organizations. The AIDS housing programs of Catholic Charities in San Francisco is one example. There are AIDS ministries with in secular organizations, like the Spiritual Resources Committee of AIDS Project Los Angeles and there are about 150 faith based AIDS agencies like the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network of Arkansas (RAIN), or AIDS Interfaith of Dallas, Texas. Beyond these groups there are a significant number of AIDS ministry coalitions, networks and task forces.
While many of these ministries attempt, through pastoral care programs, to attend to the spiritual needs surrounding AIDS, they also provide a wide range of social services and AIDS prevention education. National religious bodies and denominations support AIDS networks involving thousands of people devoted to AIDS ministry. The AIDS National Interfaith Network assisted these national groups to better coordinated their efforts by forming the Council of NATIONAL RELIGIOUS AIDS NETWORKS in 1993.
The Council's membership includes the Union of American Hebrew Congregations/Central Conference of American Rabbis Joint Committee on AIDS, the Presbyterian AIDS Network, the National Catholic AIDS Network, the United Church AIDS/HIV Network, the AIDS Ministry Network-Christian Church (DOC), the Lutheran AIDS Network, the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, the Unitarian Universalist AIDS Resources Network, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches AIDS Ministry, the Balm in Gilead, the HIV/AIDS Ministry-Seventh Day Adventists and the United Methodist HIV/AIDS Ministries Network. A Buddhist AIDS Network is currently organizing and will be joining the Council soon.
AIDS in the African American church community is addressed by The Congress of National Black Churches, a coalition of historic Black denominations including the National Baptists USA, the Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal Church, The National Baptist Convention, the Baptist Bible Fellowship, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion. These denominations represent collectively 65,000 congregations and over 13 million African American Christians. They are becoming more involved in AIDS ministry. The Alumni Association of Jackson State University, and the AIDS in the African American Church program also provide services to growing numbers of churches. The Annual "Black Church Week of Prayer," an outgrowth of the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS started by The Balm in Gilead, headquartered in New York City, is now a nation wide event involving thousands of churches in workshops and worship services over the course of seven very busy days.
Every day thousands of volunteers from America's religious community care for the sick, take people with AIDS to the hospital, clean homes, conduct rituals of remembrance and loss, provide a loving ear and a tender heart to someone facing the uncertainty of the journey called AIDS. AIDS ministry is carried out within the traditional three "P's" or roles of ministry, the priestly, the pastoral and the prophetic.
AIDS ministries fulfill their priestly role in the epidemic in two very significant ways. Some of the most memorable moments in this epidemic have come by participating in AIDS healing services. In churches, synagogues, and non traditional houses of worship, thousands have joined together to ask for forgiveness, celebrate love through service, mourn loved ones lost, and ask for strength to continue. In many communities the first time the various faiths in town have united together in worship has been at the annual AIDS healing service. Where dozens of years ecumenism and interfaith dialogue has failed, it is ironic that the advent of the AIDS epidemic has succeeded in helping diverse people of faith worship with one another. AIDS ministries also help friends and family revolutionize the traditional American funeral. Traditional funeral rituals, passed down through the years do not fit the reality of so many young people dying of this epidemic. Those who grieve for their loved ones taken by AIDS now look for ways to have a memorial service that reflects and celebrates the life of the one passed on. It has become rather common to attend funerals amidst hundreds of colorful balloons, cassette tapes with favorite pop songs and even video messages from the loved one taken by the disease.
It has been said that the advent of AIDS has revolutionized the traditional medical model of health care delivery. People living with AIDS (PLWAs) have been in the vanguard of a client centered approach, taking charge of their own treatment and care. In similar ways the AIDS ministry community, in its pastoral care role, has contributed a brand new model of home care for people with AIDS called the "Care Team".
The only institution in our society that has large numbers of people gathering on a regular basis, with a common set of altruistic values, and an intact system of communication is the local congregation. Care teams organized by AIDS ministries help provide a comprehensive, holistic approach to home care on a person by person basis. Teams of persons from one congregation are trained about the needs of people with AIDS and the basics of home care nursing. They coordinate among themselves so that the multiple needs of the PLWA can be met. They come with a spiritual support system from their congregation for themselves to help them be better helpers. Hundreds of these care teams take care of thousands of people with AIDS each day. It is truly a creative, efficient, and loving way to both help the client and help the helper as well.
Pastoral care is provided in traditional ways, by helping those in emotional and spiritual pain find a way to ease the burden. Clergy and lay persons as well have been trained by AIDS ministries to help people with AIDS and their loved ones sort out their feelings about what the epidemic brings to their lives. Good pastoral care does not provide absolute answers to the questions evoked by the epidemic but helps people dig deep into their own spiritual well and find insights for themselves.
AIDS ministries also speak out through the prophetic role of advocacy. ANIN's Council of NATIONAL RELIGIOUS AIDS NETWORKS has written and distributed "A Commitment on HIV/AIDS by People of Faith..The Council Call". This pledge gives every concerned person of faith in the United States an opportunity to "sign on the dotted line" and commit themselves to a compassionate, non-judgemental, response to AIDS.
The document says in part:
-We are members of different faith communities called by God to affirm a life of hope and healing in the midst of HIV/AIDS. The enormity of the pandemic itself has compelled us to join forces despite our differences of belief. Our traditions call us to embody and proclaim hope, and to celebrate life and healing in the midst of suffering......-We recognize the fact that there have been barriers among us based on religion, race, class, age, nationality, physical ability, gender and sexual orientation which have generated fear, persecution and even violence. We call upon all sectors of our society, particularly our faith communities, to adopt as highest priority the confrontation of racism, classism, ageism, sexism, and homophobia.
It has been said that while non-profit agencies, corporations, government programs, and even politicians come and go, the religious community is always there to respond to human need. It has been clearly demonstrated over the course of American history that within the non-governmental sector of the society, "the church" (this phrase is commonly understood to mean all religious institutions including synagogues, mosques and other forms of religious organizations) is the most stable of all American institutions.
People continue to ask "why isn't the church more involved in AIDS prevention?" This is always a hard one to answer in a few sentences. First of all, no one can speak for the entire religious community in America. J. Gordon Melton is quoted in his Encyclopedia of American Religion that America "now has a greater diversity of religious groups than any country in recorded history." He notes that of the 1,600 denominations in the U.S., 44% of these groups are, in fact, non-Christian. One hundred and fifty million Americans report to being a "card carrying member" of one of these denominations. Twenty-three of these denominations have one million or more members. Americans worship in 365,000 congregations each week, some on Friday, some Saturday, most Sunday. Americans follow the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Shankara, Allah, the Great Spirit, the Goddess, Mahavir and Jehovah among many others. As a country, we are people of faith, but people with very divergent views of how our faith provides us with a set of glasses to view the world, live and work in it. Given the enormous size of the religious community in America as a portion of our complete society, unfortunately the church has done very little when it comes to AIDS prevention.
There have been some pioneers, none the less, in the effort of providing faith based, AIDS education and prevention messages for their parishioners. Five among them are the TAP (Teens for AIDS Prevention) program of the Episcopal Church, the PEP (Peer Education Program) of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the "Affirming Person-Saving Lives" all church curriculum from the United Church of Christ and the Computerized AIDS Ministries (CAM) program of The United Methodist Church, and The Presbyterian Church, USA has created and distributed a sizable selection of AIDS education resources. In addition there are now in the works, through a grant provided by the Centers for Disease Control, of the Public Health Service, national AIDS prevention activities created and administered by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations/Central Conference of American Rabbis Joint Committee on AIDS, the Presbyterian AIDS Network, the National Catholic AIDS Network, and the Lutheran AIDS Network. While the prevention programs designed at the denominational level are a great test of the resolve of the church in preventing AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease, the greater test is to engage Americans at the place where they sit, this week and every week, in the pew, in the local congregation.
Are there "enough" people of faith involved in this aspect of the epidemic? Clearly the answer is No. But why?
The foundation for the vast majority of religions in America is the call to compassion. A call to care for the sick, to seek justice and to reach out to the neighbor in need. ANIN has put together a little gold colored ruler/bookmark that has on it the "golden rule" echoed in the Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism all of which remind their followers to "love one another other as you would be loved." When faced with the devastation of the AIDS epidemic to individuals struck by a relentless virus, thousands of religious institutions and tens of thousands of persons of faith have contributed an abundance of compassion, services, leadership and even dollars. The ethics of compassion within our traditions, after all, seems to be a collective consciousness, a way in which the body of believers pulls together under an ethic of love for the common good of all. Many religions in America have no problem with support of the Ryan White Care Act (federal funding to support direct services to people with AIDS) or with the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS Act (HOPWA) or with changing the social security system to support more poor people with AIDS. Even those of us who want to "love the sinner and not the sin" don't fight compassion. When it comes to care, we are there.
But the spector of AIDS prevention, however, raises some very difficult issues for the majority of the religious community in this country. The response of the faith community to AIDS prevention is as murky as its response to compassion is clear. Prevention means for many in the religious community the acknowledgment that America is also a sexuality active country. Married, monogamous, heterosexual couples no longer comprise the majority lifestyle choice for Americans. Sadly, almost half of America's heterosexual marriages end in divorce, this fact alone adds millions of people to the dating game each year. Among those who look forward to marriage, many are waiting a lot longer than in the past by tying the knot at an older age. At the same time, Americans are living longer which means there are more senior citizens than ever before. Since it is still true that women outlive men by at least ten years, there are many more single mature women than ever before. We also can't forget that gay men and lesbians make up a substantial portion of the population and since they are not able to legally marry,they are also considered single, at least by the U.S. census bureau.
Each year, twelve million Americans are infected with a sexuality transmitted disease. Of those, three million are teenagers. Ironically, among some populations, like adult gay men, the incidence of HIV infection has been decreasing while the number of sexually transmitted diseases among the younger heterosexual population is showing a dramatic rise.
While the faith community generally supports the response of compassion where care for the person with AIDS is concerned, the ethic surrounding the issues of sexuality, and sexual behavior, however, originate from a very different place. It is much more difficult, if not impossible, to get any kind of consensus around safer sex education or the acceptance of condom use or even the distribution of AIDS prevention materials within the religious community. A dramatic philosophical and political shift happens when there is a change from the call for compassion to a need for a response to prevention of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. It is interesting to note that the term morality is almost exclusively used only in the context of sexual behavior. When people say "but this is a moral issue" they almost always are referring to something involving sex and its expression.
We still find ourselves facing a long continuum of belief and practice when it comes to embracing the practical side of AIDS prevention. There are some denominations and other religious bodies that enthusiastically support the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines including the use of condoms and the teaching of safer sex practices. Many denominations are somewhere in the middle respond by supporting abstinence based programs. At the other end of the continuum are churches who will not even mention AIDS, as if it will go away.
We need to challenge all those religious groups who profess reverence for life to seek ways to see the AIDS epidemic as a threat to the public health, the life of the community. Lets hope and pray they find ways to examine their own morality to see if there is room to acknowledge that to withhold life saving information from those at risk is, in itself, immoral. We all need to continue to examine our own barriers within our own institutions and agencies that block us from proclaiming a message of wholeness and healing through direct, un-ambiguous, life affirming prevention messages.
The religious community in America has effected the largest, single, non government response to the AIDS epidemic, and yet we hear, "what have they done?". We have not done enough. We have responded with love, compassion, and a thirst for justice. But for the thousands of people affected by this epidemic, to whom segments of our religious community have aimed rejection, judgement, and condemnation, we can only ask for forgiveness and pledge ourselves to confront, educate and yes, even love, those brothers and sisters in the faith. For, after all, we all look to a power that is surely greater than all our sin towards each other and even greater than AIDS.
"For she said within herself, If I may but touch the hem of his garment, I shall be whole."