The Religious Community, AIDS Ministries and Prevention: One Person's Opinion
People often ask, "Why isn't 'the church' more involved in AIDS prevention?" I take that to mean that they are referring to the entire religious community in America, not just the Christian Church. It's always difficult to answer this question in a few sentences, but I usually begin with two important clarifications.
First, no one can speak for the entire religious community in America. J. Gordon Melton, in his new Encyclopedia of American Religion says that America "now has a greater diversity of religious groups than any country in recorded history." Melton goes on to note that of the 1,600 denominations in the U.S., 44% are, in fact, non-Christian. One hundred and fifty million Americans report to being "card carrying members" of one of these denominations. Thus, Americans follow the teachings of the Creator, Jesus, the Almighty, Buddha, Shankara, God, Allah, the Great Spirit, the Goddess, and Mahavir among many others. So, as a nation while we are people of faith, we are people with very divergent views as to how faith provides us with a view of the world and a way to live in it.
Second, I remind the questioner that some within the religious community, especially AIDS ministries, have been involved in AIDS prevention on one level or another since the beginning of the epidemic. Were the questioner to ask, "Are there 'enough' people of faith involved in AIDS prevention," my answer would be, "No." Why? At the core of the vast majority of religions in America is a call to compassion, a call to care for the sick, seek justice and reach out to the neighbor in need, that "golden rule" echoed in the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian traditions, which reminds the follower to "love one each other as you would be loved."
When faced with the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, faced with individuals struck by a relentless virus, thousands of religious institutions and tens of thousands of persons of faith contributed an abundance of compassion, service, leadership and even dollars. The ethic of compassion within our traditions, after all, seems to be a collective ethic, a way in which the body of believers pulls together under an ethic of love for the common good of all.
So religion in America has no problem with support of the Ryan White Care Act or with the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) Act or with those changes in the social security system permitting more support to more poor people with AIDS. Even those of us who may "love the sinner but not the sin" don't fight compassion. When it comes to care, we are there. The issue of AIDS prevention, however, has to do with some very difficult issues for the religious community in this country. The response of the faith community to AIDS prevention is as murky as its response to compassion is clear. Prevention means for many in the religious community the acknowledgment that America is also a sexually active country. Married, monogamous, heterosexual couples no longer comprise the majority of Americans:
All of these factors underline the ever-increasing likelihood that Americans may be more sexually active than ever before. Perhaps most dramatically, in Sex and America's Teenagers (The Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York, NY), it is noted that of the twelve million Americans infected each year with a sexuality transmitted disease, three million are teenagers. Ironically, among some populations, the incidence of HIV infection has been decreasing while the number of sexually transmitted diseases is on a dramatic rise.
Rev. Kenneth T. South is Executive Director of AIDS National Interfaith Network.
This article previously appeared in the March/April 1995 issue of Interaction, the newsletter of the AIDS National Interfaith Network.
This article was provided by AIDS National Interfaith Network.