HIV and the Church

Posted by Bill Mugford

I am posting this blog as I reflect on where we’ve been, what’s happening now and what the future holds in the fight against HIV&AIDS.

Over thirty years ago, the first person infected with this pernicious virus that I had ever met showed up at my office door, begging for help.  “I’m sick, and I’m scared,” he sobbed, “And I don’t know what I’ve got.”  Unfortunately, neither did I!  I’m a pastor, a “doctor of souls”, not a doctor of medicine.  Though we talked, prayed and covenanted to keep in touch, we both remained confused!  In fact, we were not alone.  No one grasped what was happening.  No one knew that HIV – and inevitably AIDS (Africa’s dreaded “slim disease”) – had invaded the shores of North America again… This time with an unimaginable and deadly vengeance.

Tomorrow, I leave for AIDS 2012, the XIX International AIDS Conference, being held this year in Washington DC, July 22-27.  Thanks to Presidents Bush and Obama, the travel ban on persons living with HIV&AIDS is lifted because we have gained confidence that we know enough about HIV&AIDS that we can fight a good fight together.  Confidence that we are making progress screams from the theme of the conference, “Turning the Tide Together”.   So many advances in multiple fields of connected endeavor have been made, that “the end of AIDS” is proclaimed as being within reach.  Personally and professionally, I am delighted at effective prevention efforts and the amazing changes in quality and longevity of life for those living with HIV&AIDS.  Almost daily, I have the privilege of being in the presence of and caring for parishioners who are living almost 30 years since their infection with HIV.  Stunning… Especially when I recount that everyone I met thirty years ago died within months. 

Yet, I remain concerned about our future regarding HIV&AIDS! 

Thirty years after the outbreak, I hear our youngest saying, “HIV&AIDS?  I’ll just take a pill, and it’ll be O.K.”  When I talk to adolescents and students, they tell me that HIV&AIDS is a small part of their academic health curriculum, and that few of their peers take the threat seriously.  “Condoms make us safe,” they proclaim, “Besides, we’re careful!”  Honestly, that kind of “careful” causes me concern because latest statistics from UNAIDS, UNICEF, the WHO and the CDC along with anecdotal evidence from AIDS Service Organizations show infection rates climbing again, with devastating effects for a broader demographic.  We are now even staring in the face of seniors being infected because of “the Viagra effect”.  (Not that the brand is at all to blame.)

I pastor at a church that demonstrably argues that the global church’s 2 billion members have a unique God-calling and are strategically positioned worldwide to care for people living with HIV&AIDS - arguably the greatest pandemic of all time.  Saddleback’s theology is orthodox because Jesus cares for the sick, and its advocacy is incessant and unmitigated, we will not stop until HIV&AIDS is beat!  But we have a long way to go!

My concern will only be lessened when we:

  • Renew our efforts to educate the young and their mentors – their peers and parents;
  • Successfully eliminate stigma and get everyone tested at least once in their lifetime, encouraging people at higher risk to be tested at least annually (CDC recommendation);
  • Ensure treatment for people testing HIV positive as soon as they are diagnosed;
  • Expose the myth of “safe sex”, replacing it with evidence regarding the safety of sexual abstinence until marriage (or at least provide honest and better information about “safer sex”); and…
  • Show that waiting to be sexually intimate with and faithful to with your marriage partner is best!

Today, I am concerned by the news item that a pastor who advocated for all of the foregoing knew that he was HIV+ eight years ago but did not share his diagnosis with his, then, fiancé, fearing her and his congregation’s reactions.  Today, he is treated, but his wife is dead.  Tragic!

Over the next few days, I will be thankful that the confusion of thirty years ago is far behind us and that our confident resolve to end the pandemic is strong.  I will also be looking for evidence that we share an abiding concern that propels us forward to really tackle and finally defeat the HIV&AIDS pandemic.

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