HUMMING A TUNE
Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, Walking Humbly with God
Emilie M. Townes
Saint Paul School of Theology
When I first encountered HIV/AIDS, it was the late 1970s-early 1980s. I was leading a Bible study group composed mostly of Black gay men and lesbians. The men told me of a disease that was sweeping through the Black gay male community of Chicago. Words such as "genocide," "germ warfare," "government plot," and "annihilation" where standard fare in our conversations as they taught me about the ways in which they were experiencing AIDS in their fives and in the fives of their friends and lovers and partners.
In 1990, my favorite uncle was diagnosed with AIDS. In the fourteen months before his death, I watched as my mother, aunts, and uncles rallied around him and helped him have, in Alice Walker's words, an excellent death. They surrounded him with their love and care. They were able to keep him at home and he died in his own room surrounded by their love and his familiar keepsakes and life-long memories.
But is with a phone call that I want to begin my formal remarks. Eight months before his death, my aunt--his sister-called me late one evening. "Your uncle wants you to do his funeral." I tried to explain that this is not a good idea, but her next words (and the fact that she is, after all my aunt) stopped me. "He doesn't trust that the pastor will put him away right. He wants to . make sure that he is put away right, so he wants you to do it." There was no immediate reply I could make other than "Yes ma’am."
After we hung up I began to cry. I did not cry for my uncle or my family. These were not tears of sorrow, they were tears of anger and frustration. What has it come to, I thought, what has it come to when a Black church that had raised a man, loved him through thick and thin, seen all his sibling grow up in it, have my grandmother be one of the pillars of the church ... all this, and my uncle knows on a deep level that he cannot trust the church that was there when he was born, there as he lived, would not or could not be there in his death? My tears where for that church and for the Black church in general because we had ceased being faithful. We were practicing a provisional love, at best. One that was extended only when others fit into our definitions of righteous or holy. There was a weird, if not demonic hierarchy of sins created such that some of us need not apply for justice or love, or mercy.
In the years since my uncle's death, I am heartened that more churches, across the racial ethnic spectrum, have come to see that the call of Micah to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God" should be part of the foundation of how we think theologically and ethically when combating HIV/AIDS in our communities. But I am only heartened, I cannot yet rejoice. For there are far too many churches that five, breath, and spew hatred and condemnation when it comes to those who have HIV or AIDS. They use phrases such as "God's judgment," "hate the sin, love the sinner," "they should all be locked up," "they should all die" as testimony to their Ae theologies of loathing. And these phrases are not just confined to talking about gay men who contract AIDS, but they mark children, substance abusers, hemophiliacs, heterosexual women, male and female prostitutes, those received tainted blood through IV transfusions with this summary judgment.
So I am heartened to say that there are more churches involved in living out the words of Micah, but there are many more community based programs that are living out this religious mandate. In Wyandotte County, Kansas, the American Red Cross sponsors an HIV/AIDS program that has three foci. Girl Talk is a series of evening events for women who want a safe and private place to learn about HIV prevention. Each party is hosted by a woman who invites five to seven friends, co-workers, and/or neighbors to her home. The American Red Cross HIV/AIDS program staff is there to provide practical information and advice such as the best ways to negotiate condom use with a man. This program uses role play to help women get a sense of their options.
Teen Girl Talk is for senior high school students who must have parental permission to attend or host a party. The HIV/AIDS staff explains the ways in which HIV is transmitted in terms that those who are sexually experienced or inexperienced can understand. This program promotes abstinence and role plays a variety of ways to say "No." However, the staff will discuss in detail the precautions and preventions one must take if engaged in any form of sex" activity.
The Working Girl Luncheon was a biennial event originally designed to help prostitutes avoid contracting the HIV virus from their clients. The Wyandotte Red Cross recently expanded the lunches and now they are called Just for Ladies. These luncheons now serve women from a variety of occupations and lifestyles. They maintain the focus of giving women information on how to avoid contracting the HIV virus.
Michael Ellner, president of the Health Education AIDS Liaison (BEAL) of New York city cautions that if one receives a positive test, take six months to educate yourself about all the issues surrounding HIV and do not take any medicine because it may do more harm than good. His warning is explicit, "No one would take any of the drugs prescribed for HIV if they only took the time to read the inserts that talk about the side effects of the medications." William Richardson of the Atlanta Clinic of Preventive Medicine believes that people who are HIV positive and living with AIDS should have the primary say in what type of care they receive. Overall, the message is get plenty of sleep and exercise, eat a well-balanced diet, avoid cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs, and avoid or reduce stress.
These cautions are being issued from many quarters because the HIV test remains problematic because of the continued high number of false-positive results. This is one of the reasons those who receive an initial positive test result are tested again after waiting six months. Some project the test to be wrong as much as 50 percent of the time. In general, the test reveals if one is antibody-positive. Any antibody in our bloodstream can produce a positive test result. This means that a cold, the flu, or prescribed antibiotics can yield a positive test result.
Richardson's Atlanta clinic has treated more than 100 patients with HIV and AIDS. Some choose to take the various HIV/AIDS medicines, others refuse this treatment and try more natural remedies. But for Richardson, treatment must be holistic-body, spirit, and psyche--as patients learn to love themselves as they strive for healing.
Youth workers advocate peer education by using skits, mini-plays, and other dramatic presentations about young people contracting HIV. Many youth workers who deal with high risk youth are incorporating H1V/AIDS education in youth activities as a part of their general educational philosophy.
Dana Washington, the HIV/AIDS coordinator for the American Red Cross of Wyandotte County, Kansas, repetition is key for dealing with HIV/AIDS in the African American community--or any community. For Washington,
No matter how culturally relevant your message is, if it's based on a one-time, one-hour presentation it won't have much impact. Prevention programs that change high-risk behaviors take a lot of time. I will go to the same Laundromat every week for months so I can build trust with the women who do their laundry there. The first time you talk to a woman about negotiating with her man over condom use, she may think to herself, yeah, that's a good idea. But she's not ready to do it yet. But every time we meet, I bring the subject up again. Eventually, she'll be ready to experiment with a new behavior.
Because of the moralism found within any discussion concerning HIV/AIDS, I would the Reverend Carl Bean story is telling:
I went to see a client at UCLA, and III never forget this little old black cleaning lady I saw there. If she hadn't come to clean that man's room, he would never have gotten his food. The lady picked up his tray from outside the room, brought it to his bed and began to feed him. She was not a technician from the dietary department, she was the cleaning lady. Some of the food had gotten cold and she even heated it in a microwave. I felt like here was one of my people that really was supposed to be mopping and emptying trash, but who stopped doing that to help someone. She didn't know about AIDS either, whether she could catch it or not. But her heart, her true commitment propelled her beyond whether she could catch it. She was humming a hymn.
Humming a hymn may not sound like radical activity at first glance. But don't forget that humming and singing hymns have a rich tradition of justice and protest in the African American community. Slaves made it through the day through humming the spirituals. The Civil Rights movement was fired by the power of the spirituals and the hymns of the church. So this old Black cleaning lady knew what she was doing when she called on the power of a hymn to help her respond to human need.
There are people of faith in the Black community who are reaching out to five that faith. The Annual Black Church National Day of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS is held in several cities and in our nations capital in February. Support groups are forming in a growing number of African American churches and more churches have support groups than last year.
Elliot Riviera, a community program planner in the New York city Department of Health, trains priests and priestesses of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria to serve as AIDS counselors. Santeria, which is derived from the religion of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, is followed by many Blacks and I-Hispanics/Latinos in the inner city. Its practitioners are often better able to convey HIV/AIDS information than government workers or members of the medical profession.
"The African American Clergy's Declaration of War on HIV/AIDS" points the way for the Christian church. Its points are simple. The mission of the church is to minister love and support by forsaking no one. This battle must be fought from the pulpit and through all the institutions of the church. The church must develop a comprehensive AIDS awareness and education program regardless of sexual orientation, drug dependency, or lifestyle choices. The church must work with grassroots organizations to combat AIDS and act as an advocate on behalf of the whole community. The call is for compassion, nurture, and advocacy.
As the churches Re Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, City of Refuge Church in San Francisco, and Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri work with the community, a major piece of the priority is advocating increased support for community-based primary care to ensure delivery of prevention and care services for the range of health issues, including those for HIV/AIDS.
The Reverend D. Mark Wilson, pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA states it best: in many church communities, including African American, I have often heard fellow clergy say that it's not important how one gets HIV/AIDS, and that may be true. However, if we are saying this to ignore the suffering and the oppression we place on sexual minorities in our congregations, then it's already too late to help them and ourselves in our effort to heal the many wounds of AIDS. As Black churches have taken the Bible and reread and reinterpreted passages of Scripture which once taught that black skin was a cur-se and an abomination, and as they heard for themselves the empowering voice of God's love and justice, I hope that African Americans and others of good will, win again reread and reinterpret the Scriptures and hear the voices of those within our community ... that cry out not only to be healed, but more importantly to be free.
The Good Samaritan Project is an HIV/AIDS advocacy and care organization in Kansas City, Missouri. It has developed a Care Team plan in which interested churches or other religious groups can establish a care team of ten to fifteen members. For churches that do have enough volunteers to sustain a single team, Good Samaritan arranges interfaith care teams. Each team is assigned one to four HIV-positive clients who are matched to the abilities and availability of the team members.
The goal of the care team is to help HIV-positive people who can remain at home if their needs are such that extra community assistance can help them stay there. Shopping, meal preparation, bathing, and helping people get out of bed are possible ways that care team members help. The care team members are there to provide supplemental care--not primary care--but they can give primary care givers a much needed respite.
The Good Samaritan plan recognizes that many potential care team members may be unable or unwilling to provide personal care, so members focus on meal preparation, shopping,.yard work, and other non-personal chores that enhance the quality of life of the HIV-positive person. The point is that within the team, members are diverse enough in their interests and skills that the team can provide solid supplemental care.
Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, the former United States Surgeon General, has an eight-point call to the Black Church concerning HIV/AIDS. She believes that the church must: than concerned about this problem; the church must;
-be more committed.
-use tools of commitment; give time, talent and treasure.
-be the voice and vision for the poor and the powerless.
-be empowered to network and use its prestige, power and passion to influence decisions.
-form partnerships and help to develop sound public health policy.
-reach out, be responsible and be willing to take some risks to save our young people.
-educate our young people and ourselves, as well as people in our communities, our businesses and our schools.
-claim victory in conquering this disease.
Such a call must not go unanswered and more and more Black churches are responding to this call. Although the numbers are growing, the Black Church is still woefully behind the need. Before a church begins an HIV/AIDS ministry, it is important to become knowledgeable about B11V/A1DS in general, to be clear about goals and objectives, and to make an honest assessment of the church's abilities in such a ministry. In Kansas City, Missouri, Calvary Temple Baptist Church has developed such a ministry to meet the needs found in its community. In its August 1996 newsletter, "Temple Times," the church laid out its ten-point strategy for fighting HIV/AIDS.
1. Ask God for direction in making a start
2. Speak to your Pastor about starting an AIDS ministry at your church.
3. Learn the facts about AIDS by: Participating in training offered by Calvary Temple (2hours) Participate in Red Cross training (16 hours, Calvary staff will help to arrange)
4. Participate in AIDS related events and functions AIDS quilt World AIDS Day Black Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS Walk for Life
5. Volunteer to provide Advocacy or Education. Make regular visits to nursing homes and skilled care facilities Become an HIV/AIDS educator Make your food pantry available to people living with AIDS Become a Care Team Volunteer Assist a patient living at home by: Picking up prescriptions Grocery shopping Cleaning Making home visits to minister Being a friend by listening
6. Teach, model and encourage abstinence!
7. Collect special offerings designated toward the local or national AIDS service organization of your choice.
8. Make brochures available for your church track rack that are sensitive to the needs of your church.
9. Be sensitive to the fact that there may be someone in your congregation that is living with the disease and afraid to tell. Be supportive.
10. Pray for a cure! Pray for Healing! Pray for our compassionate response.
Of course the greatest hope is that a cure will be found soon and this conversation will be stuff of history books. But there is more work for us in the faith communities of this nation to do in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS and in providing comfort and spaces of welcome and home for those who are suffering from AIDS. There is the ability to hum tunes while we do the work of justice, while we love mercy and walk with increasing and more faith-filed humility and determination with God.