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Commentary: Churches cannot remain silent about HIV/AIDS

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The Rev. Chester Jones
Oct. 4, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Chester R. Jones*

Recently, I heard the moving testimony of Bishop Fritz and Etta Mae Mutti, coordinators of the United Methodist Church Global AIDS Fund Committee.

Speaking to a Washington gathering of United Methodists fighting HIV/AIDS, the couple told how this deadly disease took the lives of two of their sons. Their story reminded me that HIV/AIDS does not respect persons of power or privilege. The disease does not care about race, class, color, culture, religion, creed, ethnicity or gender. AIDS is an equal-opportunity menace, affecting rich and poor, the well educated and successful, and those with little education and few successes.

One could feel the pain the Muttis experienced. And yet, just as evident were the enormous strength and sense of responsibility in their fight to eradicate AIDS. The Muttis' story teaches us a lesson about how one family turned their pain into gain for the church and the world. Think about it. Who could better serve as coordinators of the Global AIDS Fund Committee than a mother and father who lost two young sons to AIDS?

God had to temporarily lose his son, who was put to death by being nailed to a cross, to save the world. The lesson is that not even God could go into the life-saving business without suffering the pain and loss of his only begotten son. Yes, the Muttis lost two sons to the cruel cross of AIDS. Now they have a burning passion to save as many people as possible from AIDS.

No known cure

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, has no known cure. People living with HIV/AIDS can only control the infection with a "cocktail" of medications, called antiretroviral drugs.

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A UMNS photo by Erik Alsgaard

Retired United Methodist Bishop Fritz Mutti and his wife, Etta Mae, speak at the “Lighten the Burden” conference on AIDS in Washington.
The disease destroys the body's ability to protect itself from getting sick. Most people don't know the fellow church members or neighbors who are living with HIV/AIDS but they are there. We need to become more aware of them and their challenges in order to show compassion to them.

The first documented AIDS case appeared in San Francisco in 1981. Since that year, more than 25 million people have died of this disease, and about 40 million others are living with the virus. Half of those infected with HIV are women and adolescent girls.

This devastating disease takes the lives of 8,000 people every day, and another 14,000 people are infected each day.

In the United States, the HIV/AIDS virus has claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people since 1981. In 2006, more than 1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and 40,000 new cases are expected to occur this year.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control, African Americans, who constitute about 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 54 percent of new HIV infections in 2000. AIDS-related illnesses remained the leading cause of death for African-American men ages 25-44, and the third-leading cause of death for Hispanic men in the same age group.

The availability of the antiretroviral drugs has drastically reduced HIV/AIDS-related mortality in the United States, but elsewhere in the world, the story is different. The hardest hit area of the world is sub-Saharan Africa, which has 70 percent of the infected cases and 80 percent of the new cases. Countries in this area are already plagued with malaria, tuberculosis, hunger, poverty, debt, wars and systemic oppression. These nations are vulnerable because the people, especially women and children, lack the education, economic opportunities and legal protection to control their own destinies.

Fourteen million children in the world today have lost one or both parents to AIDS, leading to a large number of households headed by children. Eighty percent of the AIDS orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa.

People of faith must act

Churches can no longer afford to keep silent, whether from fear or apathy. To paraphrase John Wesley's adage, the world is now dying in our parishes. The word of God and the teachings of Jesus must compel the church and faith-based partner organizations to confront the HIV/AIDS pandemic and to engage in ministries of care, advocacy, hospitality and direct service.

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Dozens of fresh graves crowd the Granville Cemetery in Harare, Zimbabwe, a grim reminder of the AIDS epidemic that kills some 8,000 people daily.
Surely, if God's people are silent on this issue, "the rocks will cry out" (Luke 19:40).

We must be in ministry to the poor, the have-nots and the left out. They are the people who die twice because even when they get treatment they don't have money to buy food or pay for rent or utilities.

People of faith must be in the forefront of the fight against this pandemic, and we must hold state and federal government officials accountable. Government support, although substantial, is still like a drop of rain in the desert. We must challenge government officials to make treatment more available and to establish clear, humane and action-oriented policies.

I challenge United Methodists to fight HIV/AIDS by practicing "Six Be's":

  • Be a teacher. Be able to articulate the church's position on this disease. Teach and model understanding, tolerance and openness toward people living with the HIV/AIDS virus. Treat all people living with AIDS with dignity and respect, no matter how the disease was contracted. Teach a gospel of love, grace, healing hope and reconciliation, not condemnation. Educate young people about HIV/AIDS.
  • Be an ally. Offer support to people living with HIV/AIDS and demonstrate that all people living with this virus should be treated with dignity and respect. Work in your church, district and conference to undo and reduce the bigotry, condemnation and prejudices that some members in our churches have toward people living with HIV/AIDS. Form partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, educational institutions, community organizations and other groups in this fight.
  • Be honest. Recognize your own prejudices, biases and values toward people living with the HIV/AIDS virus. Don't hide under the scapegoat of condemnation. Never be afraid to tell the truth about how much or little you know about this disease. Always seek to learn more.
  • Be a student. Listen to people with whom you disagree. Learn the art of conflict resolution and find ways to build bridges to reconciliation. Learn the denomination's position on AIDS-related issues and how to treat people living with HIV/AIDS. Know that there are 5 million new HIV/AIDS infections every year and 3.1 million deaths annually.
  • Be an activist. Challenge all forms of discrimination and prejudice toward people living with HIV/AIDS. Participate in the fight to redirect the political will of elected government officials to produce the necessary human, financial and technical resources to find a cure for HIV/AIDS. Help make antiretrovirals affordable.
  • Be secure. Know who you are. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do as an ambassador to people living with HIV/AIDS. Be secure in knowing that in living and working in ministry among people with AIDS, nothing, "shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 8:39)
  • *Jones is the top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

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