AIDS conference warns epidemic is not over-and churches must get involved

December 21, 1998

A high-level conference of leaders from America's faith communities and the medical profession met recently in Atlanta and issued a warning that the AIDS epidemic is far from over-and a plea that religious groups get involved in overcoming the stigma that interferes with healing.

In discussing trends in the HIV-AIDS epidemic at the four-day November meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Dr. Robert Janssen of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that 30 million people are living with AIDS today and there are 35-40,000 new cases a year, two-thirds of them among racial minorities. "The huge issue is that the most vulnerable in our society are getting the last care," he said, especially the homeless and those with mental problems. Of the 750,000 people who are HIV- positive in America, only one-half are receiving care. "And we are doing a poor job of identifying early" those who contract the disease and need help.

In addressing the role of the faith community, Janssen urged education to reduce the stigma attached to HIV-AIDS. He admitted that the medical community is "so hung up on a cure that it hasn't dealt adequately with healing." He pointed out that belief could affect the ability of the immune system to deal with the disease, adding that medical models don't always recognize those benefits. Dr. Michael Merson, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, said that his visits to 150 countries helped him realize the important role of religious leaders, but he was frustrated by the realization that they were "fine with care, but uncomfortable with prevention."

He said that he found the figures of those affected "numbing," with a possible 50 million infected so far, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa where 25-30 percent could die in the coming years. The epidemic is just beginning in Asia but he is convinced that it will end up being "disastrous." For example, in China and India, where only eight million are now infected, the number will quickly move to 38 million, more than Africa. And he foresees a major epidemic in Eastern Europe. "Obviously we are still in the early stages in many parts of the world." Merson related an encounter with medical personnel in a Ugandan Roman Catholic hospital where he was told, "It's one epidemic," and that "what's happening in America is no different than what we are seeing in the rest of the world." He concluded, "If we apply what we have learned about prevention, we don't need to repeat it in other parts of the world."

He warned, "We are 15 years away, at best, from having a vaccine," making efforts at prevention very important. But that requires confronting the myths about the disease, a difficult task because of a continuing hesitancy to discuss sexual issues. He said it is crucial to overcome the "Victorian in ourselves that equates sex with sin." Communities of color have special issues of resistance, he said, contending that racism and homophobia and denial "is a many-headed monster."
Yet treatment, even when it works well, is not a cure, Merson said, adding that today's success with various drug treatments will diminish in 3-5 years. "We are sitting on a time bomb and it is painful to talk about the possibility of resurgence of the disease." He ended his presentation with a plea for the faith communities to help with prevention, to empower those who are attempting to cope with the disease. "And view every new case of AIDS as a failure."

Defining the problem
Roman Catholic theologian Mary Hunt, who offered daily meditations during the conference, said that she is convinced that "we are engaged in the very best of interreligious, ecumenical work, driven not by ideology but by necessity because people are sick and dying and we can help. "I think it is time for those of us who are Christian to state clearly and simply that some beliefs, attitudes, practices, teachings from our tradition have contributed to the HIV-AIDS pandemic," she added. "What we are doing here then is not, finally, heroic, but the ordinary work of being religious, of being linked with one another and with those who have come before us and those who will follow us."

Describing the meeting as an opportunity to "keep pace theologically with the pandemic," Hunt added, "It is a time to hope, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that we can do some things together that might help us to stem the tide because of the ways in which religious beliefs have been more a part of the problem than the solution thus far." She added that the participants could be "the beginnings of an interreligious force for justice and healing that I believe will eventually replace as outmoded and inadequate the piecemeal efforts of our various traditions."

She cited a lecture by Dr. Jonathan Mann of Harvard, who died in the recent Swissair crash in Nova Scotia and to whom the conference was dedicated, who said that the old model of chasing the virus was no longer adequate. Mann said that "how we define a problem determines what we do about it," and that the response must take into account societal factors "in the scope, intensity and nature of the discrimination that exists within each community or country." Hunt interpreted those remarks as a sign that "science was now relying on me, and on you, the people whose work it is to define problems and shape attitudes." She concluded, "We who ask questions for a living can shape the way in which an issue is perceived and dealt with."
If Merson is right, she said, "we had better hurry up and get beyond what has been described as 'pelvic theology' to public discussions of fundamental issues of race, class and gender as they frame this unequal opportunity disease."

Frustration from care-givers
Those who are on the front-lines of fighting the disease told harrowing stories of the obstacles they face, most of them because of the moral qualms about a disease so linked to gay men and drug-users. "I'm saddened by the religious community's resistance to AIDS," said the Rev. Jeff Peterson-Davis, a Presbyterian who directs the Atlanta AIDS Network. "You would think the religious world would show unconditional love towards sufferers but that has not been the case." The Interfaith Health Program at the Carter Center, a sponsor of the conference with the AIDS National Interfaith Network, the American Academy of Religion and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta.

"What in our traditions allows us to demonize others and oppress them?" asked Dr. Randall Bailey, a black theologian at ITC. "Why do we embrace those facets of our religion that oppress others.?" He said that blacks seem to accept gays only as musicians, adding that "only recently has the church been willing to be openly oppressive. We feed the destructive tendencies of theology when we distinguish so-called innocent victims from those of the despised group." The Rev. Tina Pippen, an Episcopal deacon and professor of biblical studies and ethics at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, said that many Christians "can understand perfectly a justice issue half-way around the world but marginalize their neighbors at home." She argued that organized religion finds it difficult to discuss gay-rights issues or gender justice, often lapsing into judgmental rather than compassionate approaches in dealing with homosexuals, the poor, youth or pregnant women at high risk.

The Rev. Carter Heyward of Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts said that the epidemic has created a moral and spiritual crisis for many religious traditions because it has provoked reactions too often based on fear. The crisis should encourage faith groups to seek creative theological and ethical responses. "Through the lens of economic privilege and poverty, race, gender, education and health care we would see more fully into the workings of both good and evil in human life-and into the presence of both human and divine life working through the AIDS crisis," she said.

The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly gay denomination, told the participants that "funerals are down but the battle isn't over yet. Because drugs are working for many it is easy to be lulled into a sense of security," he said. When the epidemic began to ease in 1996 too many were encouraged to take that as "a visible sign that it's over. When you live under a cloud, even a few rays of sunshine is such a thrill it lures us into a false sense of eagerness to move back to regular life."

The Rev. Jimmy Allen, who described himself as the last non-fundamental president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a dinner address that "the problem is a heart problem, an attitude problem." He told of the "deep blow of disappointment" he and his family felt when his HIV-positive grandson was blocked from attending Sunday school. "But he was received at McDonald's," Allen said, urging his audience to "stay with the networks, find the folks who care." He concluded, "We are at a time when we are weary, a time of discouragement, but also a time when a breakthrough is possible."

--James Solheim is the director of the Office of News and Information for the Episcopal Church.

Related Topics: