March 29, 2010
Last month, I had the honor of opening the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS for a large Cincinnati church. During my conversation with the congregation, I encouraged them to consider two questions regarding the AIDS epidemic in Black communities:
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus clearly demonstrates how He would behave if he were living today. Whether by restoring sight to the blind, healing lepers or protecting a prostitute from being stoned, Christ displayed compassion, love and mercy and alleviated suffering -- no matter the affliction or impairment the person experienced, their place in society, or the social condemnation they faced.
Jesus also describes how He wants people who are ill, suffering or stigmatized to be treated. In Matthew 25:37-40 we find this text: "Lord, when saw we thee a hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Only loving God supersedes Jesus' instruction to "love your neighbor as yourself." This direction is the key to living an ethical, righteous life in accord with Christ's teachings.
The life of Christ describes unequivocally how Christians should address HIV/AIDS. Jesus would not only confront the epidemic by speaking out against stigma and discrimination, He would tell us to embrace those with the disease, teach people how to protect themselves and advocate for the sick to receive appropriate care and treatment.
Talking is greater than silence.
I closed by asking congregants who were infected, affected, or who knew someone who was living with or had died from HIV/AIDS to stand. The Minister and First Lady of the church were quick to rise. Soon nearly the entire congregation stood. I approached those who were still seated, introduced myself, disclosed that I have been infected with HIV for 30 years and asked them to stand up with their church because now they too -- like nearly 50 percent of Black Americans -- know someone with HIV/AIDS.
Last week I received a letter from a woman who had been in attendance that Sunday. A member of her family had recently tested positive. Until that day the family had lived in silence and shame, not disclosing this fact to anyone. Yet experiencing other members of their congregation stand up as "infected and affected" helped them to courageously tell a few members of their faith family.
Talking is greater than silence because it allows us to receive needed love, help and assistance; it also liberates us. And we give those with whom we share the opportunity to live up to Jesus' commandment.
There are also practical benefits to talking about HIV.
Whether or not you are HIV-positive -- but particularly if you are Black -- it is important for you to raise HIV with your doctor whether or not your doctor raises it with you. If you are HIV-negative, discuss your sexual and drug-using behavior so you can receive vital medical guidance and an assessment of your risk factors. In the event that your behavior jeopardizes your health, you can learn what to change. If you are uncertain of your HIV status, you gain the peace of mind of knowing. Knowing is greater than doubt. In the event that you're newly HIV-positive or are already aware of your positive status, talking to your doctor will help you receive appropriate care that can dramatically extend and enhance your life.
Talking to your family and loved ones is especially important. As the family in Cincinnati experienced, when one member gets HIV, we all get HIV/AIDS -- not because we become infected; HIV is not transmitted through casual contact, so drinking from the same glass, sharing eating utensils, hugging and kissing do not put you at risk -- but because the whole family can carry the stigma and shame. If the HIV positive person contributes to family finances, any loss of income can destabilize the family. They may also experience unforeseen medical and other expenses.
Yet Black families have a long tradition of surviving challenges. Those who weather them successfully do so because they talk to each other, care for each other and love each other. Talking is greater than silence. And Black families are greater than AIDS.
Phill Wilson is the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the only HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. He can be reached at PhillWilson@BlackAIDS.org. Greater Than AIDS is a national movement to respond to the AIDS crisis in the United States with emphasis on the severe and disproportionate epidemic among Black Americans. To learn more go to www.greaterthan.org or www.facebook.com/greaterthanaids.