The Canadian Church and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic
Too little, but not too late.
Years ago Karen and John Plater made a short-lived speaking tour around a handful of Canadian churches to discuss HIV/AIDS. It was an intensely personal mission because John was HIV-positive. When they got to the part of their story about how John contracted the disease, the couple could see tense shoulders relax in relief that it was from a tainted blood transfusion and not from homosexual activity. "Then people were okay with it," remembers Karen. "We were innocent victims, so they wanted to help us."
"I don't know why we allow other issues to supersede our compassion. But we do."
Ten years later Karen is resource and communications coordinator for Presbyterian World Service and Development in Canada. Today her husband is healthy, but she believes the church's reaction to HIV/AIDS still belongs in the emergency room of a spiritual hospital.
"We [Canadian Christians] could have been a leader," she says, in the struggle against the pandemic that has killed millions. "I don't know why we allow other issues to supersede our compassion. But we do."
Plater is not alone in her assessment that it is difficult to find a strong and steady pulse in the North American Church's response to HIV/AIDS. Last year World Vision Canada advertised widely for a day-long seminar designed to help churches develop an effective ministering presence in the AIDS crisis. World Vision would take the seminar directly to congregations. No one signed up.
"We tried to do some quiet probing why," says Don Posterski, director of church relations for World Vision. "Anecdotally our suspicions were confirmed that this issue was not on the agenda of the church. And Evangelical church attenders seem to be less open to respond to the needs than others, or even those who don't attend church."
Elsewhere, the evidence moves from anecdotal to statistical and sobering. A survey sponsored by World Vision, conducted in 2001 by California-based Barna Research Group, revealed that only three percent of Evangelical Americans said they would "definitely" help children orphaned by AIDS.
The survey also showed that Evangelical Christians were significantly less likely than non-Christians to give money for AIDS education and prevention programs worldwide.
"The stereotypical reading of the HIV/AIDS crisis is that they have brought it on themselves," says Posterski. "And of course the tragic reality is: that is not the global story." When AIDS first crept into the consciousness of the Church in North America, it was not unheard of for a sense of condemnation and a belief that HIV/AIDS was God's judgment on homosexual behaviour to creep into conversations between some Christians and even sermons from some well known preachers.
"We put sins of sexuality in a special category," says Posterski. "Even though we taste temptation ourselves, we have the capacity to condemn with ease."
The Church's response to HIV/AIDS is complicated by the fact that it is often transmitted through sexual behaviour that the Church may find unacceptable, agrees Andrew Ignatieff, director of the Anglican Church's Primate's World Relief and Development Fund.
"Addressing the issues of HIV/AIDS takes the Church into areas of thought and action, issues of sex and sexuality, where the Church has difficulty developing consistent policies and plans of action. I think it is a large and complex problem."
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Problems that are complex and uncomfortable are simply easier to ignore—especially when there are other ways to keep busy. "HIV/AIDS came to the Church at a time when many churches are preoccupied with their survival as institutions and their financial viability," says Ignatieff. Issues like declining attendance, residential school lawsuits or struggles to resolve doctrinal issues within denominations made it easier for the Canadian Church to look inwardly to tend to its own wounds instead of reaching out to those wounded by HIV/AIDS.
Jim Christie is a United Church minister in Ottawa, a leader in a denomination known for social justice activism. Even he can confess that reaching out to the wounded can make strong arms weary. "The kind of thing that is happening in Africa is staggering. We are bombarded by images of an unparalleled epidemic," he says. "People have a kind of compassion fatigue."
World Vision's Don Posterski points out that Canadians also tend to look at the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa through the distorting lens of the North American experience of the disease. In Africa, AIDS hits women and children the hardest. And in cases when it is contracted through sexual promiscuity, that "promiscuity" usually involves a woman so poor that she sees selling her body as the only way left to her to feed her children. "It could be that in agencies like World Vision, maybe we haven't figured out how to tell the story. But when you see it up close, compassion is generated, not condemnation."
That realization, and the sense that the Canadian Church is not doing all it can do to fight this disease, prompted Posterski to recruit a handful of diverse Canadian Church leaders and fly with them to Africa. They would cover two countries in seven days and return to Canada, hopefully moved to galvanize their churches and denominations to leap off the spiritual stretcher and get to work. He thinks it might have worked.
We expect people to know how to respond, but this is a very difficult issue for Christians to address.
Jim Christie was on the plane. "This trip helped to conquer hopelessness," he says. The man who will confess to sometimes being weary says, "Compassion fatigue and wringing one's hands over Africa is a luxury we can't afford because of our faith. We're not entitled to compassion fatigue."
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Jeremy Bell's voice bounces off the phone from his home in Vancouver when he talks about the Africa trip. He is excited about the possibilities for the Canadian Church, including the congregation he pastors in trendy Kitsilano, to be leaders in the fight against AIDS. "We should be ashamed at some level, but I'd rather just say, 'Let's get on with it,'" he explains. "The pandemic, for me, was brought down to bite-sized pieces. Christians in North America are the best reservoirs of transferable cash there is, and we can do that. The pandemic in Africa hasn't been on our radar, but now it is."
That is reason to be encouraged, says Sean Campbell, director of Samaritan's Purse Canada. "Perhaps the Church hasn't responded as it should. Is the Church willing? Absolutely. I think there is a huge educational process that needs to take place here. We expect people to know how to respond, but this is a very difficult issue for Christians to address. Maybe it is the Christian agencies that need to lead the way and show them how."
The recently announced partnership between the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the World Evangelical Fellowship in a new AIDS initiative for Africa is one example of this emerging leadership. By connecting with already existing African Church alliances as well as "a small but growing number of large churches in North America whom God is calling to work with churches in Africa" the EFC hopes to facilitate the relationships between donor agencies and North American and African churches, as well as mobilize individual Christians in both parts of the world to have an effective, biblical response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
For some sectors of the Christian Church an effective and biblical response has been a long time coming. But it is a welcome sight.
Karen Stiller is the associate editor of Faith Today.