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Louisiana churches help lead fight against AIDS

 
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5:00 P.M. EST Nov. 30, 2010 | BATON ROUGE, La. (UMNS)

A somber crowd braves chilly winds in Baton Rouge for a 2009 World Aids Day interfaith memorial service.  UMNS file photos by Betty Backstrom.
A somber crowd braves chilly winds in Baton Rouge for a 2009 World Aids Day interfaith memorial service. UMNS file photos by Betty Backstrom.
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United Methodists in Louisiana are far from content to be honored as leaders in efforts both to educate people about AIDS and help lead the way to eliminating the disease in their state.

They want to continue putting faces on the disease, encouraging people to better understand HIV/AIDS and, perhaps, to join the fight.

“We are deluged with statistics, but do we see the human faces in the growing numbers of those affected by AIDS?” asks Jeff Stafford, a member of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. His city experiences the third-highest rate of new HIV cases in the nation.

“Do we see the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and children who struggle with this disease?” he adds.

The attempt to put faces on the disease and educate about its very human cost helped The United Methodist Church’s Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference receive one of five inaugural United Methodist Global AIDS Leadership Awards during the third international Lighten the Burden Conference in October.

Other honorees included former President George W. and Laura Bush, retired United Methodist Bishop “Fritz” and Etta Mae Mutti, the Rev. Donald Messer and Dr. Musa Dube.

The Louisiana Conference members were praised for giving $160,000 in the worldwide effort against HIV and AIDS at a time when they were also dealing with Hurricane Katrina-related recovery. The award is to be celebrated, but the battle is far from over, according to those working for the cause in Louisiana.

“I am inspired by the efforts of United Methodists throughout the Louisiana Conference as they do their part to help eliminate this killer disease,” said Bishop William W. Hutchinson, who leads the conference.

The Rev. Derrick Hills takes the HIV/AIDS test administered by Baton Rouge Metro Health employee Chandria Collins.
The Rev. Derrick Hills takes the HIV/AIDS test administered by Baton Rouge Metro Health employee Chandria Collins.
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Challenge on the levee

The interfaith conference, held in Dallas, focused on how the faith community can work toward an AIDS-free world.

Louisiana’s honored efforts were based on education and enlightenment. The state’s United Methodist conference launched the campaign in 2009, with the goal of “improving health globally” while putting the special emphasis on working together to eliminate AIDS at the street level.

Perhaps the most dramatic event of the campaign was a World AIDS Day memorial service, staged last December on the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge.

On that levee, Stafford, who chaired the event, made the comments directing those involved in the campaign and the citizens of Louisiana to “see the human faces” behind those statistics.

That service on the levee actually was the second HIV/AIDS interfaith event staged in 2009 by the conference.

The first took place not at a single symbolic gathering point but in churches throughout the city, where free HIV/AIDS testing was offered.

Local pastors -- realizing many people are afraid or even ashamed to take the tests -- sent a message by stepping to the front of the lines at testing sites during that August 2009 initiative.

Setting an example

“It was important for pastors to show their willingness to be tested so that others may realize that fear or shame shouldn’t stand in the way of saving your life, or the lives of others,” said the Rev. Derrick Hills, pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church.

The Louisiana Department of Public Health – a partner in the initiative – endorsed this strategy and its result.

“If pastors like Rev. Derrick Hills can stand in line to be tested, that goes a long way in encouraging others to do the same. It is critical to have the involvement of local churches,” said the state health department’s Eugene Collins.

“Sadly, people just don’t want to know whether or not they are HIV-positive,” he added. “They are afraid of the repercussions.”

In addition to the tests, the event was designed to educate people who think they know about HIV/AIDS, but who really don’t know enough, according to the state’s Collins.

“The truth is lack of education is a problem,” he said.

“An important thing that came from this project was increased public awareness,” not only through information distributed at the testing sites but at a press conference held at First United Methodist Church.

Bishop William W. Hutchinson takes an HIV/AIDS test while on the podium during the 2010 Louisiana Annual Conference at Centenary College in Shreveport.
Bishop William W. Hutchinson takes an HIV/AIDS test while on the podium during the 2010 Louisiana Annual Conference at Centenary College in Shreveport.
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This testing campaign continued at last June’s Louisiana United Methodist Annual Conference at Centenary College in Shreveport.

The testing fit the conference’s theme of “Whole World, Whole People,” a statement of the conference and the denomination’s commitment to improving global health.

This time the clinic offering free testing to the public was on the campus.

Offering free clinics

Knowing this is just a start in the battle to protect and educate the public, the Louisiana United Methodists have continued to promote testing, with free clinics offered twice this autumn in Lake Charles.

The results of the clinics, while not overwhelming, were encouraging, according to local organizer Jo Parker, a member of Westlake United Methodist Church in Lake Charles.

“Although we did not have high numbers of persons coming through the clinic, our partners in the Department of Public Health and the local AIDS council said that the church’s support in this area is invaluable. By hosting these clinics, United Methodists are saying, ‘It’s OK. Don’t be embarrassed. We accept you,’” said Parker.

And these tests and other activities just begin the necessary, though sometimes uncomfortable, conversation, according to the Rev. Susie Thomas, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge.

“Crucial to preventing new HIV/AIDS cases is education,” she said during last year’s World AIDS Day memorial service.

“That means we have to talk about things and activities that we maybe would rather not, and that communities of faith will need to address issues of sexuality and health at a level where they have not been comfortable before.”

The commitment continues with World AIDS Day memorial services scheduled for both Baton Rouge and Lake Charles in December.

Support to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, can be made through UMCOR Advance #982345.

*Backstrom is director of communications for The United Methodist Church’s Louisiana Annual Conference.

News media contact: Heather Hahn or Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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