American faith communities have launched the single largest US response in the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with programs organized by at least 5,000 formal and informal faith-based HIV/AIDS organizations. Their actions are creating new models for cooperation among diverse groups, including the forging of new partnerships among religious, secular, and philanthropic organizations. Faith groups are playing critical roles in HIV/AIDS prevention, education and support.
As more faith communities begin to speak out and embrace the AIDS issue, other religious organizations continue to be silent about the epidemic or remain paralyzed by the issues that AIDS presents.
What is a faith community?
According to the AIDS National Interfaith Network (ANIN), the term "communities of faith" is a broad one, meant to encompass a group organized around any set of beliefs or practices that involve a belief in a higher power or order, a larger organizing principle for life and the universe, or a system or code that links our values and actions to the idea that there is reason and purpose to our existence on Earth. Advertisement
Faith-based responses to AIDS take diverse forms and exist at all levels. Some involve single denominations or communities, while others are interfaith programs. Many programs originated in individual congregations and have evolved into separate agencies, incorporating multiple groups.
Faith-based programs provide members with a way to express their faith and give of their energy and talents. Interfaith programs provide opportunities to link personal values to those of others. [See the Interfaith Declaration.]
Most faith-based services at the community level focus on primary care or support services. Some congregations have included HIV prevention and education programs.
There are numerous examples of highly successful community-level services organized and funded by local faith communities or by interfaith coalitions. Their ministries include food and meal services, food banks, pastoral care and counseling, shelters for homeless HIV-positive women and their children, drop-in day care centers, hospices, housing, support services, training of care providers, support groups, substance abuse ministries and AIDS education programs.
In the spirit of social justice, many faith-based organizations have established national networks to coordinate AIDS services among their members. Following are some examples of these national responses:
- The Balm in Gilead represents the seven historic African-American
denominations. It provides leadership for the black church's response
to HIV/AIDS in America.
- The National Catholic AIDS Network hosts an annual national Catholic
HIV/AIDS Ministry Conference and has developed a new HIV/AIDS resource
entitled "Many Threads, One Weave."
- The Joint Committee on AIDS of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations
and the Central Conference of American Rabbis produced the video "Jewish
Responses to AIDS."
- The National Episcopal AIDS Coalition distributed 100,000 copies
of a federal report on AIDS to Episcopal parishes, dioceses and schools.
They designed HIV/AIDS prevention materials through their "Teens for
AIDS" peer education program.
- The Buddhist AIDS Project networks Buddhist communities and existing
AIDS services with Buddhist resources. It provides free information
on resources and alternative HIV/AIDS services.
- The United Methodist Church's AIDS Ministry Network operates the
Computerized AIDS Ministry Resource Electronic Bulletin Board to increase
communication among AIDS-involved persons.
- The Presbyterian AIDS Network sponsored a national conference to
train care teams in the support and care of the HIV-positive and their
- The United Church of Christ has written a full curriculum on HIV/AIDS
prevention, graded for all age levels, from pre-school through senior
citizens. It is entitled "Affirming Ourselves, Saving Lives."
- A national newsletter is designed to increase communication and linkages
among American Muslims affected by HIV/AIDS.
- AIDS National Interfaith Network was created by diverse faith leaders
to foster communication and education about HIV/AIDS among various religious
communities. They also convene the Council of National Religious AIDS
Networks, comprised of 14 national faith-based organizations.
An Interfaith Declaration
In an effort to develop an appropriate response to HIV/AIDS from the faith community, the Council of National Religious AIDS Networks, an interfaith coalition, came together in 1993. They developed the following statement, portions of which were taken from The African-American Clergy's Declaration of War on HIV/AIDS (The Balm in Gilead Inc., 1994) and from "The Atlanta Declaration" (AIDS National Interfaith Network, 1989). Communities are welcome to adapt this or use it as a model.
We are members of different faith communities called by God to affirm a life of hope and healing in the midst of HIV/AIDS.
The enormity of the pandemic itself has compelled us to join forces despite our differences of belief. Our traditions call us to embody and proclaim hope, and to celebrate life and healing in the midst of suffering.
AIDS is an affliction of the whole human family, a condition in which we all participate. It is a scandal that many people suffer and grieve in secret. We seek hope amidst the moral and medical tragedies of this pandemic in order to pass on hope for generations to come.
We recognize the fact that there have been barriers among us based on religion,
race, class, age, nationality, physical ability, gender and sexual
orientation which have generated fear, persecution and even violence.
We call upon all sectors of our society, particularly our faith
communities, to adopt as highest priority the confrontation of
racism, classism, ageism, sexism and homophobia.
As long as one member of the human family is afflicted, we all suffer. In that spirit, we declare our response to the AIDS pandemic:
- We are called to love:
God does not punish with sickness or disease but is present
together with us as the source of our strength, courage and
hope. The God of our understanding is, in fact, greater than
- We are called to compassionate care:
We must assure that all who are affected by the pandemic [regardless
of religion, race, class, age, nationality, physical ability,
gender or sexual orientation] will have access to compassionate,
non-judgmental care, respect, support and assistance.
- We are called to witness and do
justice: We are committed to transform public attitudes
and policies, supporting the enforcement of all local and federal
laws to protect the civil liberties of all persons with AIDS
and other disabilities. We further commit to speak publicly
about AIDS prevention and compassion for all people.
- We promote prevention:
Within the context of our respective faiths, we encourage accurate
and comprehensive information for the public regarding HIV transmission
and means of prevention. We vow to develop comprehensive AIDS
prevention programs for our youth and adults.
- We acknowledge that we are a global
community: While the scourge of AIDS is devastating
to the United States, it is much greater in magnitude in other
parts of the world community. We recognize our responsibility
to encourage AIDS education and prevention policies, especially
in the global religious programs we support.
- We deplore the sins of intolerance
and bigotry: AIDS is not a "gay" disease.
It affects men, women and children of all races. We reject the
intolerance and bigotry that have caused many to deflect their
energy, blame those infected, and become preoccupied with issues
of sexuality, worthiness, class status or chemical dependency.
- We challenge our society:
Because economic disparity and poverty are major contributing
factors in the AIDS pandemic and barriers to prevention and
treatment, we call upon all sectors of society to seek ways
of eliminating poverty in a commitment to a future of hope and
- We are committed to action:
We will seek ways, individually and within our faith communities,
to respond to the needs around us.
The website of AIDS National Interfaith Network has links to many other AIDS-related, faith-based websites: www.anin.org
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