November 18, 2009
Two weeks ago we held a pastor's forum here in Durham, North Carolina. About 20 pastors came from both black and white Christian congregations. Stigma became the main topic. One of the things that surprised me most were the challenges of talking about health issues period -- let alone more controversial issues like HIV/AIDS.
One pastor shared that one partner of a couple in his congregation has a health issue that they won't talk about with anyone other than the pastor -- and this health issue is not even a stigmatized disease like HIV, but something like high blood pressure, diabetes, or cancer. But if the couple doesn't share their problem, the congregation can't effectively support them.
Another couple has a gay son who is HIV positive. The son has moved to NYC. Since the couple won't raise the issues with their church community, they are left alone to deal with the significant issues related to gay oppression and HIV. Because they don't talk about it, they don't get the benefits of support from their faith community. And in the Southern US as elsewhere, church communities are strong, numerous and influential.
Stigma serves to keep us separate, confused and feeling like potential victims. Stigma operates around HIV, but targets anything -- race, religion, class, etc. To end stigma would be to truly end the oppressions of all people -- to change the world to become a place where differences are respected and honored, where people care about others, where people can truly and safely be who they are.
Several of the pastors at our forum said they need ongoing dialogue in support of ending the stigmas in their congregations. They need education and information about HIV. They need support in addressing significant moral issues within their congregations. And they need help coordinating outreach and ministry activities. They also need their deacons, members of their congregations, and other pastors to back and support them. It takes courage to move forward against stigmas that are so prevalent and challenging.
Marc is Executive Director of the Piedmont Health Care Consortium in Durham, NC.
To contact Marc, click here.