Today is World AIDS Day.
The epidemic eventually labeled as HIV and AIDS was identified in the summer of 1981. I began a journey of advocacy for HIV ministry in 1987, which is an intriguing story, as I was called to this activity at a time when I knew no one with HIV Disease. My primary roles in service were as a volunteer resource writer/editor and coordinator for a nationwide referral network of ministries to people affected by HIV. In those years, most HIV ministry in the theologically conservative branch of the American church was done through parachurch groups – local churches rarely had direct involvement. Thankfully, that has changed over the years … but it has taken years.
If I were writing this article today, I’m sure I would take a far different approach, so please consider this material based on the time it appeared then, not on what the times are now. When I wrote the first version of this article a decade after the epidemic’s beginning, most conservative churches still needed a provocative push even to consider the possibility that they had some responsibility to serve. (Hence, a lot of second-person “you” to verbally tap on the chest of leaders and congregants in churches. These days, I’d probably use first-person “we.”)
This article’s title created a bit of a stir then, though I doubt it would be seen as so stark now. So perhaps that makes this article an intriguing time-capsule piece to serve as a barometer of the pressure then toward change, and what the weather is these days for ministry at both the margins and the center, because all people still deal with some kinds of life-diminishing issues. In the mission-shaped mindset as it is unfolding these days, perhaps a better question is this:
If our church is no longer “HIV negative,” what might be other real-world issues in which we need sensitization so we can make a positive difference as those who follow Jesus Christ?
Is Your Church “HIV-Negative”?
Are people infected or affected by HIV disease welcome at your church?
Or is your church HIV-negative?
I believe your answer to those two questions serves as a barometer on how relevant your local congregation is in ministering to today’s culture. In fact, if your local church can deal with the issue of AIDS from a biblically balanced perspective of compassion and holiness, it can deal with just about any other problem that comes along. If it cannot or will not deal with AIDS, I wonder if your church really is being obedient to all God calls us to be and to do as the Body of Christ.
These are very strong statements. But I say them because I see AIDS as presenting one of the biggest challenges and opportunities the Church has faced in its entire history. Why? To deal effectively with AIDS, you must address a host of other issues that tend to make us as Christians very uncomfortable – and some understandably so. These range from the political to the personal, from the theological to the ethical, from the relational to the immortal. But if your church leaders and congregation can negotiate their way through this steeplechase of apparent obstacles, there await two marvelous prizes at the finish line – the eternal salvation of souls and a warm testimony of Christian integrity in orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
But HIV and AIDS represents a web of interlocking questions for us to address. Since the Bible says a three-fold cord is not easily broken, how difficult might it be to slice through the Gordonian Knot of interwoven issues?
Issues Related to Sexuality. To deal with AIDS, you have to open up the subjects of adultery, homosexuality, heterosexual promiscuity, rape, teen sexuality, child sexual abuse, and prostitution, because all these present modes of behavior at risk of infecting individuals with the virus that causes AIDS.
You have to face the problem of comprehensive school sex education curricula that gives “raw data” about sex and perhaps AIDS, but with none of the moral boundaries that God ordained for sexual intimacy.
And what about in-school health clinics where they distribute free condoms, possibly encouraging young people down the road to sexual addiction under the guise of exploring their sexuality “safely”?
Drug Addiction. Then you have to learn about IV drug use and its consequences – and this includes not only the heroin use that supposedly affects only lower economic classes, but the steroid-shooting behaviors of the supposedly upper-class “Body Beautiful” cult. You have to grapple with different ethical issues such as the morality or immorality of a needle exchange program to supply IV drug addicts with clean needles, and/or providing drug addiction treatment programs.
People on the Streets. You also have to tackle the topics of teenage runaways, and people on the street who are homeless – all of whom are at increased risk of being infected because of the vulnerabilities inherent in surviving their living situation.
Disproportions, Discriminations. You have to discuss the sensitive problem of bridging racial and ethnic cultural barriers and differences. This involves cutting through perhaps some of the most complex fusions of fear, bitterness, and justice facing the modern Church.
For instance, what would you say is the single factor that most easily predicts whether someone is likely to be HIV-infected? The correct answer, according to some of the most recent AIDS medical textbooks and certification exams, is “poverty.” When you discuss poverty, you’re immediately faced with the fact that racial and ethnic minorities have a disproportionately high share of people below the poverty line.
These populations have gained a dramatically higher percentage of HIV infection than their percentage in the population as a whole. For example, in 1992, African-Americans represented only about 12% of the general USA population and Latinos, about 6%; but their percentages of AIDS cases were 27% and 16%, respectively. (The Essential HIV Treatment Fact Book by Laura Pinsky and Paul Harding Douglas with Craig Metroka, 1992, page 172.)
Also, “nationwide, the incidence of AIDS among black or Latina women is about a dozen times higher than the incidence of AIDS among white women.” (Ibid., page 173.)
And, “individuals are not at higher risk for AIDS because of their race or ethnicity. Rather, the disproportion of AIDS among black and Latino people occurs in cases that were transmitted by needle sharing. The high incidence of IV drug use and needle sharing in some black and Hispanic communities is due to the combined impact of underlying social and economic factors including poverty, racism, unequal schooling, and unequal opportunity for employment.” (Ibid., page 173.)
Have you considered the possible connections between poverty, lifestyles that involve risk behaviors, and race/ethnicity?
Then, you’ll need to consider other problems with discrimination, such as the devastating impact of differential social treament aimed against individuals infected with HIV. Even their family members and friends find themselves affected by the disease their loved one carries – and are often hesitant to share this burden for fear of being ostracized.
Life and Death. Finally, you have to come to terms biblically with issues of death, terminal healthcare, suicide, and euthanasia because these unavoidably come up when you deal with AIDS.
Going Onwards. Feeling totally overwhelmed? Congratulations! If we could do ministry in our own wisdom and power, we wouldn’t need a Savior or Lord or the Holy Spirit. Obviously, on this one we are way out of our league – which makes us candidates for God’s grace!
I think the above list of HIV-related issues suggests at least three things:
- Sooner or later, if your church reaches out to a variety of people, you will definitely come across someone with HIV disease.
- Becoming and remaining a relevant church means work.
- Better to start considering the kinds of issues now, before a crisis situation hits, and some potentially irreversible damage is done to the reputation of Christ because your church wasn’t ready when reality hit.
Converting Negative to Positive. But let’s not forget to look at the positive side of things, too. First, it’s worth repeating: If your church leaders and congregation can negotiate their way through this steeplechase of apparent obstacles, there await two marvelous prizes at the finish line – the eternal salvation of souls and a warm testimony of Christian integrity in orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Second, if we have people with AIDS in our congregation, we should not take it as an embarrassment, but rather as evidence that we’ve done our jobs in reaching out with compassion without compromise. (In fact, I like to say this deserves a pastoral care and congregation “award”: The Good Sheep-Keeping Seal of Approval!)
If you’ve just recently expelled all your air in a depressed sigh, now take a deep breath and recall to your mind the truth: God can and will fill you with His wisdom if you ask Him for it …