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The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.

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HIV/AIDS and Religion

My name is Joe, and I'm a gay man living with HIV. I also happen to be a Christian minister. Spiritual and religious influences have dramatically altered the overall course and direction of my life. It has informed who I am now and who I am becoming. I have seen firsthand the tremendous good that takes place when religion offers healing and wholeness to others. I have also witnessed the negative force that can be unleashed when prejudice and oppression in the name of religion goes unchecked.

When talking about HIV/AIDS and religion in the same breath, we must uncover as many of the roles religion has played in the evolution of the epidemic as possible. To do so, we must first consider how powerful religion is, historically, and recognize that any notion we might have of a secular existence is merely wishful thinking. Society has never achieved separation from religion. Quite the contrary. Rules and regulations that have determined the law of the land for centuries emanate from the same religious beliefs and practices of the founders of our government, and have influenced that law ever since. Long have religious doctrine and dogma weighted policy and politics in the United States and around the world, often to the detriment of its people and culture. To this day, our courts consider arguments about the propriety of the inclusion (or exclusion) of God's name in our institutional language, even as they judge the validity of sodomy laws that still ride on the books of thirteen southern and western states.

From these comments, it is abundantly clear that politics and religion are inalterably woven together. You can no more separate political rhetoric from its religious roots than contend that the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS is unrelated to prejudice associated with sexual orientation and expression. This discussion has as much to do with sexuality and religion as it does HIV and religion.

HIV/AIDS has come to mean many things in the cultural, social, and spiritual circles of our world. But contrary to the prevailing doctrine among fundamentalist conservative political and religious leaders and their devotees, HIV/AIDS is not a curse from God. HIV/AIDS is not a judgment against immoral behavior. HIV/AIDS is not an expressed retribution or karma from past (or future) deeds. And HIV/AIDS is not deserved. Quite simply, nobody deserves to live with or die from HIV/AIDS than from any other disease or illness.

You'd never know this by peering into the deep recesses of the doctrines of the most populous religious institutions within the United States. Misguided religious and political movements continue to stigmatize HIV/AIDS, blaming queer people universally and queer men in particular, for the spread of HIV/AIDS locally and globally. In the same breath, queer people are deemed unworthy "sinners" because of their sexual orientation and practice, and the attempt is made, often successfully, to exclude us from the diverse family of the human and spiritual community.

Doesn't exactly make you want to jump up and run to your local church, mosque, or synagogue and enroll, does it? Unfortunately, there's more unsettling news to report, from one extreme to the other.

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The infamous Halloween "Hell House" Kit (still a popular item among some in the fundamentalist Christian movement for a mere $199) promotes grotesque and macabre depictions to young people across the country: a young woman covered with scabs and sores seeks an abortion, a young man contracts venereal disease from having premarital sex, an AIDS victim lies in a coffin as a prancing demon utters the slogan, "I tricked him into thinking he was born gay. Have you ever heard something so silly?" The message couldn't be clearer: to have sexual relationships outside the "norm" is pure evil, and begets pain, misery and doom, and punishment will be in future. Other descriptive terminology from similar faith traditions are just as damning: "immoral," "disordered," and "intrinsically evil." Sound another sad note against religion.

Stigmatization against those with HIV/AIDS frequently materializes in much more subtle manifestations. I once trained as a chaplain at a university hospital complex on the West Coast. A young man had been admitted to the ICU with pneumocystis. As happens too often in this disconnected world where familial relationships are at times based upon half-truths, his parents (who flew in from Michigan) didn't know he was gay, let alone that he had HIV/AIDS. Another chaplain attempted to counsel this young man, but the tight restriction of his dogmatic religious tradition was inept at coping with the patient's queer experience. The significance of this inability to distinguish between self-righteous judgment and compassionate ministry was incalculable, so at my urging, and with my supervisor's permission, I approached the patient's mother. She confided that she couldn't understand why her loving son (her favorite child of six, incidentally) could not have been honest with her. Suspicious, I inquired about the family faith tradition, and a sadness came over her. She became irritated, upset, and confused, and acknowledged she would have no support when she returned home. "No one will understand this," she said. The look on her face and those five words were enough to tell the story.

Another man I visited throughout the summer was hospitalized with terminal HIV-related lymphoma. He refused to contact his family or allow the hospital staff to speak on his behalf. He had long separated himself from his friends at the onset of this latest illness, and he confessed that he'd finally bought the rotten goods that religion had spewed about "homosexuals" his entire life. Compounding his inner turmoil, hurt and anguish pervaded his home life concerning his sexual orientation. Now, at the end, he was unwilling to risk a final trauma, certain that the "We-told-you-so's" would far outnumber the "We-love-you's." One would have hoped this man's personal faith might have brought some comfort. But if one believes that God is immanent and thereby present in all beings, then the special delivery message he thought God was sending had certainly been received. Tragically, he died alone.

These stories are not new or surprising. They will continue to unfold until the family of religions, its leaders, and their followers unite to obliterate hate and prejudice based upon ignorance and fear. Traditionally, people have been able to turn to their spiritual communities for solace and comfort in times of personal struggle, inner turmoil, or physical illness or impairment. Sadly, for those from the HIV/AIDS community, that same house of worship and its "supporting" community might be the last place people would want to go to ask for help or direction.

But no matter how bleak the situation may seem, it's not all bad. When HIV/AIDS first leapt into our collective consciousness, the first heroes to engage in the fight against the epidemic were lovers and friends from the queer community. I draw upon my own experience here, having lost two partners to HIV/AIDS one to Kaposis Sarcoma and the other to AIDS-related lymphoma. The impact was enormous, but when I really needed to do so, I was able to draw on a force and strength I never thought possible (one religious community served me; another did not). But as HIV/AIDS cases multiplied, the next layer of care came from the medical community. Health care providers of all kinds, caught off-guard by the swift spread of the epidemic, mobilized, trained and reinforced themselves in an effort to stall the epidemic. A huge groundswell from within faith communities and religious organizations materialized as well, many whom had experienced grief and loss of friends and fellow-churchgoers who rapidly succumbed to the first wave of HIV/AIDS. Others were mobilized unwittingly by the shocking, heartrending news (not unlike that mother from Michigan) that their children had tested positive and needed the immediate and nonjudgmental nurturing love of their parents once more. The fact is, over the past two decades many religious groups have established critical lifelines by assisting PWAs, their families, and friends, through programs of education and prevention, as well as compassionate care and support.

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This is not to say that all compassionate care is dispensed with neutrality and extends beyond the impact of the disease itself. Some religious institutions try to have it both ways: they'll help fight against HIV/AIDS as caregivers sympathetic to the sick and dying, but all the while they'll fight tooth and nail against any acceptance of a queer lifestyle or "agenda." One California religious organization recently spent $2 million to support an effort to make marriage among queer people illegal. What kind of message is that? At best, it's a double standard that won't hold up ethically under any religion that holds the love of all humankind as its mission. The "love the sinner, hate the sin" mantra is one filled with judgment and bigotry. It is a privileged and hierarchical perspective not at all grounded in the beauty of the diversity of everyday lives and relationships.

So what's the magic test? How do we know that a religious organization has made a commitment to engage in the well-being and care of its HIV/AIDS population? One way to find out is to visit its website. See how long it takes you to find out about HIV/AIDS issues or programs if they exist at all. In some cases, you'll be pleasantly surprised. And in others, well, probably not at all.

So what we should expect from religion today in the fight against HIV/AIDS? What is the responsibility of the religious community as a new wave of the epidemic now challenges the entire world community, particularly those most threatened among the poor and marginalized peoples of the globe?

Here's a place to start. Religious leaders should pledge to uphold and declare all life and all loving relationships as sacred. They should once again appear on the front lines of the epidemic, united against those who would use HIV/AIDS to separate and divide. And with the Faith-Based Initiative certain to pass Congress in some form in this term, interfaith religious leaders should insist that the distribution of funds be channeled only to those institutions for prevention that are willing to speak the truth about HIV/AIDS and human sexuality. Congress should ensure that the funds designated for HIV/AIDS prevention be used to mobilize communities toward true prevention, not the promotion of one simplistic messages of "abstinence" which may work for a few, but not for most.

Let our religious leaders mobilize interfaith teams that cooperate with local Departments of Public Health and scientific communities of universities and hospitals to provide more informed and practical approaches to education and prevention. Platitudes and slogans are clever but do little toward real progress in slowing the epidemic. Provide free and anonymous testing in the same buildings that house places of worship. (I know this works, because we do it at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco!) Offer and encourage routine testing. Establish care teams that assist people with practical and spiritual support and information. Offer HIV/AIDS support groups that reach beyond individual worship community into the broader community where the need is greater. People of faith need to let people know they care and are committed, and enlist volunteers to ensure that no one goes unnoticed or is left behind and forgotten.

Many religious traditions have already created space for the ultimate Divine love, care, and welfare of all human beings. This is something we should all aspire to, regardless of the fear and prejudice that can paralyze us toward inaction while the children of God die all around us. God weeps for them, and for us. Religion can continue as an impediment or as an ally in the fight against HIV/AIDS, whether the topic is sexual orientation, education, or prevention. The potential for both is there.

I wish I could unequivocally declare an even balance between the inherent good religion has done and the evil it has often embodied. Fortunately, I have not been called to testify, nor have I any desire to keep score. Much more needs to be done. I figure it takes about ten times the number of good deeds in the world to counteract every evil perpetuated in the name of God by religion. Though I'm not much of a proponent of "heaven and hell," if there is a devil at work in the universe, this would be its work.

Religion has to do for all her children what parents of queer people must do when they find out their beloved daughter or son has acquired HIV/AIDS love and care for them tenderly, unconditionally, unreservedly. Does this always happen? No, it doesn't. But it most certainly should.

And as for me, I care deeply about the impact religion has had in my life and upon those whom I have loved. I am passionate about the power and strength of the Divine in my life, and the capacity for healing that can take place for others when religious people choose to let go of their fear and ignorance, and decide instead to let love and compassion rule their hearts. It is from those deep and positive aspects of my religious experience that my challenge comes that and from my sincere belief that everything we do can and will make a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS.