Today, December 1, 2012 is the 25th World AIDS Day, and the face of HIV/AIDS worldwide, in the US, and in the church is vastly different than when this day was first observed in 1988.
According to the World Health Organization, “In 2011, 2.5 million people were newly infected with HIV. An estimated 1.7 million people died. That is 700,000 fewer new infections worldwide than ten years ago, and 600,000 fewer deaths than in 2005.”
There is no cure for HIV infection. However, effective treatment with antiretroviral drugs can control the virus so that people with HIV can enjoy healthy and productive lives.
In 2011, more than 8 million people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) in low- and middle-income countries. Another 7 million people need to be enrolled in treatment to meet the target of providing ART to 15 million people by 2015.
I write this from Atlanta as I’ve just experienced a ground shifting (for me and, judging by the “aha”s around the room, for everybody else) talk on disease, illness, cure, and healing in biblical and theological terms and in contemporary society by Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, New Testament scholar at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. It was part of an important conference held by Johnson C. Smith and the PC(USA) office of Public Witness, with the Presbyterian AIDS Network: “Creating AIDS Competent Churches and Church Leaders: Remembrance, Repentance, and Responsibility.” Johnson C. Smith is one of the ten PC(USA) seminaries, and is the only historically black theological school of the church. Dr. Aymer generously shares her handout with the MLP family here – In Sickness and In Health (pdf)
The face of HIV/AIDS has changed since my friend Mark, a little older than me and a Georgia native who moved to New York City in the 80’s, became HIV positive 27 years ago. He tells me of those days when members of the NYC Gay Men’s chorus, of which he has been a member since its founding, sang at as many as five funerals per week. He tells me about the time he was in St. Vincent’s with an impossibly low t-cell count, and was not expected to return home. His brothers of choice in the chorus went into his apartment, unbidden and without permission, and repainted, refurnished, and redecorated it. A fabulous embodied act of compassion and a living credo – a statement of faith that said as surely as we say together on Sundays, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Return home he did. In the paradigm I just learned from Dr. Aymer, healed of illness (restored to community and freed of stigma) if not cured of disease. That he has an undetectable viral load today is testimony to the miraculous nature of current HIV drugs for those who have the privilege of access to them.
Almost half of the 34 million people in the world who are HIV positive do not have access to these drugs, including too many of the 1.4 million in the US. Many states are refusing expanded Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act, placing HIV positive citizens at grave risk. As HIV has moved into the category of a chronic and manageable condition rather than a certain death sentence, there is a tendency to focus our attention on other matters, but there is still so much work to be done.
On this World AIDS Day, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of this work. I commend to you one lesser known area for action I learned about from Leslie Woods from the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness: working for the repeal of laws criminalizing people with HIV. Most of these laws were passed in the early days of the plague, when fear was high and biomedical and social understanding was low. These statutes have tragic consequences to this day. Please watch this video from the Sero Project – I imagine you’ll be as shocked as I was. Please go to the interactive map below the video to learn about HIV criminality in your area. Let World AIDS day 2012 be the catalyst to rally the ecumenical voices in your area to repeal these unjust and scientifically unsound laws.
Most World AIDS Days, I use a particular poem as a prayer – it helps me to, as the conference title says, remember, repent, and take responsibility. I invite you to join me in reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Dirge Without Music, and:
- Remember the many people we have loved whose lives have been taken by AIDS, and give thanks for those who are still among us living with HIV.
- Repent of our complacency in working to transform the church and society into places of honesty and safety for people living with HIV.
- Take responsibility by thinking of two or three concrete actions we can take to work for that transformation, and commit to following through on these actions.
As Millay says, let us not approve, and let us not be resigned. As we read and pray let us work together for a new heavens and a new earth where everyone is at home.
Interim Executive Director