I spent fourteen years, off and on, at a faith-based non-profit.
I spent three years in seminary.
I’ve served four different congregations.
All of this, not to mention that I was raised in the church.
In none of those places did we talk about HIV. Not substantially, anyway.
Some of that is my fault. In some of those places, I called the shots and set the tone for what was discussed. In other places, we talked about AIDS, but mostly as a problem being dealt with in Africa.
And there were occasional whispers. A man who was prominent in a church I was once associated became sick but it was never really discussed. After he died, I remember the hushed mentions of AIDS. I believe there were also mentions of God having “healed” him of his former lifestyle. Yeah…
Last week I began working at HopeSprings. Our organization works with faith communities to educate them about HIV in order that we might overcome the health disparities in our community and eliminate the stigma that is often associated with the virus. The last ten days has been about filling my head with stats and stories. It has been sobering, to say the least.
1 in every 41 people in Baltimore is living with HIV. In certain neighborhoods, it is 1 in every 20 people. The latter communities are predominantly African American and largely impoverished. The face of the average person with HIV in this city and most of the country is a black man under 40 who has sex with other men.
And there, I think, is the issue. For a long time, the public face of HIV/AIDS in this country was a gay white man. That lead many of the leaders in the African American community to dismiss it as not their problem. It lead many in the church to dismiss it as a byproduct of a sinful lifestyle. Over time, treatment for HIV progressed to the point where living with it was no longer a death sentence. Here, the disparity in access to health care between black and white communities began to rear its ugly head. Transmission of the virus gradually morphed into a problem of poverty and access. White LGBT community largely turned its focus from AIDS awareness and prevention to issues of marriage and civil rights. Good things, of course, but it left behind those without the resources or education to stop the spread in their communities. The spread of HIV now is another stark reminder of systemic oppression and age old inequalities.
To talk about HIV in any of those places that I mentioned at the top would have meant needing to talk about sex, something the church does incredibly poorly. It means talking open and honestly about issues like homosexuality, STI’s, and safe sex. It would have meant talking at length about the injustices inherent in our health care system. It would have meant talking about sex work and the fact that are many in our communities that trade sex for basic necessities or drugs. Church is rarely a place where we talk about any of these things well. That’s one of the things that HopeSprings seeks to address.
As HIV moves more into the margins of our society, any church that wants to do the work of eradicating the virus, not an unrealistic goal, has to be willing to move into the margins itself. It may mean providing condoms or clean needles at church. it may mean opening up our fellowship halls as testing sites. It may mean sitting with someone as they await the results of their test. It means putting aside judgment and affirming the image of God in the faces of the infected or those at risk of infection.
I’ll admit, the last week and half has exposed some major blind spots in my education. It’s exposed some prejudices, but more places where I was simply ignorant. I’ve stepped into this new position trying to maintain beginner’s mind, the Zen Buddhist principle of being open and eager to learn. I have a lot to learn and what I have learned already is making me rethink what it means to follow Christ here and now. It is scary and exciting. I look forward to sharing the stories I encounter along the way in this new part of my journey…