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Church confronts AIDS — but often timidly

 
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3:00 P.M. EST June 6, 2011 | NASHVILLE (UMNS)



Tommy Williams (right) receives a hug from Ginny West Case, director of the Strength for the Journey camps for adults living with HIV/AIDS.  The program is held at the United Methodist-related Buffalo Mountain Retreat Center near Johnson City, Tenn. A UMNS 2006 file photo by John Gordon.
Tommy Williams (right) receives a hug from Ginny West Case, director of the Strength
for the Journey camps for adults living with HIV/AIDS. The program is held at the
United Methodist-related Buffalo Mountain Retreat Center near Johnson City, Tenn.
A UMNS 2006 file photo by John Gordon. View in Photo Gallery

“All individuals living with HIV and AIDS should be treated with dignity and respect” is one United Methodist Social Principle.

Since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control identified AIDS 30 years ago, many United Methodist local churches have tried to live out this principle by opening hearts, minds and doors to people living with AIDS.

Tragically, some others have not.

Raymond’s experience is a case in point. He has been HIV-positive for 20 years. In those two decades, he has sought solace in the church and found little. Raymond asked that his full name and church not be identified.

“When they have a potluck at my local United Methodist church,” he said, “and I offer to bring something, they say, ‘Oh, you don’t need to bring anything. We’ve got you covered.’

“I can’t even bring an unopened box of crackers.”

Finding spiritual rejuvenation

Raymond’s story is not unique as HIV-positive individuals encounter the stigma.

Many still do not understand how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. One cannot “catch” HIV by sharing a meal with someone who is HIV-positive, being stung or bitten by an insect or sitting on a toilet seat.



In Sisters, Ore., Strength for the Journey campers leave a centering worship service at Suttle Lake Camp and Retreat Center. A UMNS web-only  photo by Lisa Jean Hoefner.
In Sisters, Ore., Strength for the Journey campers leave a centering worship service at Suttle Lake Camp and Retreat Center. A UMNS web-only photo by Lisa Jean Hoefner.

HIV is spread by having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV or sharing a needle to inject drugs with someone who has HIV. An HIV-positive mother can pass the virus to her unborn child. Since 1985, all blood banks in the United States have tested donations for HIV.

Many congregations and annual (regional) conferences are trying to counter misinformation and stigma.

Several annual conferences, for example, model their support for people living with HIV/AIDS with the nondenominational Strength for the Journey camping program. The camps invite people with HIV and AIDS and their caregivers to have a time away and a spiritual focus in a safe environment.

The first Strength for the Journey camp was organized in 1987 in the California-Pacific Conference. Others have followed.

“I’ve been to a lot of these …, but you guys really get it,” said one participant in the Strength for the Journey camp in the Holston Conference. Holston has offered the camp for 14 years.

“I need this,” added another. “On the last day of camp, I always start counting how many days it is until next year’s camp.”

Quality of Life Retreats

In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Quality of Life Retreats provide a connecting, coping experience for people living with HIV/AIDS. The ecumenical retreats offer a chance to get away, get together, interact as well as share and learn techniques to cope with issues of long-term survival.

"When I come here,” a participant said, “I need some spiritual rejuvenation, and my energy levels need to be replenished, and that's what I get from these retreats. Without them, maybe I would have died years ago."



The Rev. Deborah Tanksley-Brown, director of the interfaith Helping Us Be (HUB) of Hope HIV/AIDS ministry (left), stands with the Rev. H. Joe Tyson, during a recent community HIV-testing event held at Olivet United Methodist Church, Coatesville, Pa.  A UMNS photo by  Katie Powell.
The Rev. Deborah Tanksley-Brown, director of the interfaith Helping Us Be (HUB) of Hope HIV/AIDS ministry (left), stands with the Rev. H. Joe Tyson, during a recent community HIV-testing event held at Olivet United Methodist Church, Coatesville, Pa.
A UMNS photo by Katie Powell. View in Photo Gallery

The United Methodist Church of the Open Door in Kennett Square, Pa., established the interfaith Helping Us Be (HUB) of Hope HIV/AIDS ministry.

“While HIV is a health issue, the impact of living with the virus invades all areas of a person’s life,” said the Rev. Deborah Tanksley-Brown, who directs the ministry.

“The social-justice side effect of HIV/AIDS that further weakens a person’s quality of life includes isolation, stigma and discrimination.”

HUB of Hope mobilizes various houses of worship to respond with compassion.

That type of response is also lived out in the Rocky Mountain Conference where the Rev. Daniel Marutle works as a pastoral counselor and HIV/AIDS educator and trainer. He is from the Methodist Church of Southern Africa in Johannesburg.

“It is unfortunate that people living with AIDS are still stigmatized, labeled and rejected,” he said. It’s not unusual for families to ostracize or disown them. “For the last three years, out of 21 infected persons in counseling (here), only seven got support from significant others.”

He recalled one man who, after an HIV-positive diagnosis, “experienced the most horrible and humiliating thing of being showed where to find his plate and utensils when coming to family gatherings.

“The majority of people in the United States believe AIDS is a small problem in their communities,” Marutle said. “People act and talk like the former South African President Thabo Mbeki some years back when he publicly said HIV/AIDS does not exist in South Africa.”

Building congregations

In downtown Minneapolis, two congregations meet in the former Wesley United Methodist Church. One is New Harmony, which welcomes the predominantly gay and lesbian Loring Park community that surrounds it. Situated in the shadow of the convention center, New Harmony draws gay and straight residents of the community, corporate executives from the area and, often, nearby hotel guests.

“We’re trying very hard to build a fully embracing congregation,” said the Rev. Greg Renstrom, who came out of retirement to serve the church on a $1-a-year salary.

“We have a huge building, a small congregation and a big heart,” he added. “We’re trying to represent The United Methodist Church in ways we hope are hospitable and gracious.”

For many years, Wesley, at its height a large-membership church, held interfaith memorial services on World AIDS Day. It was the first Reconciling congregation in Minnesota.

Recently, New Harmony adopted Wesley Church’s tradition of sponsoring World AIDS Day services.

Harold Anderson, who is gay, is excited about New Harmony. He began attending Wesley 40 years ago, left for a while and joined New Harmony in February. “A breath of fresh air” is how he describes the new church start.

“The community is extremely welcoming,” he said. “We have a history of social action. We don’t just talk about it. We actually do it.”

‘The battle for some gets tiresome’

Similar things are happening at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

The Rev. Philip Thomason, minister of outreach and pastoral care, said in the mid-1990s, the majority of St. Mark members were gay and lesbian. Now the congregation is much more diverse, with many young families, both gay and straight.



A somber crowd observes a 2009 World AIDS Day memorial service in Baton Rouge, La. The United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference organized the interfaith event. A UMNS file photo by Betty Backstrom.
A somber crowd observes a 2009 World AIDS Day memorial service in Baton Rouge, La. The United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference organized the interfaith event.
A UMNS file photo by Betty Backstrom. View in Photo Gallery

“Back then, we were burying five to 10 people a month,” Thomason recalled. The church started support groups to help people cope with the epidemic and “to figure out how to die.”

Then the highly active antiretroviral therapy — or HAART — drug cocktail came along, greatly improving life expectancy of AIDS patients. “The same men who were preparing to die, then had to turn around in midstream and figure out how to live,” Thomason said.

The most important task for a congregation, he noted, is to be an “inclusive community where everyone is treated with care.”

What should Raymond do if a congregation snubs him, even “politely"?

“Leave that church,” Thomason advised, “especially if you’re the only one (who is HIV-positive) there.” He wishes more people knew there are churches that support individuals who are HIV-positive.

“The battle for some gets tiresome. Those of us who are able need to continue that battle for people who are HIV-positive and living with AIDS.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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