Faith and HIV in America, Then and Now

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When the HIV epidemic first struck in the U.S. in the 1980s, it was accompanied by a huge dark cloud filled with judgment, hate and ignorance. Back when HIV was still the "gay cancer," many people used the epidemic as a weapon against people whose sexual orientation did not accord with their beliefs. And, in many cases, those beliefs were deeply rooted in religion.

Compassion was scrupulously rationed according to mode of transmission. If you contracted the virus through a medical mistake, you were pitied as a victim of circumstance. If you contracted it through sex or injection drugs, you were castigated for "sinning." The religious community was not exactly a leader in health advocacy in those days. For example, the Catholic Church was a huge opponent of birth control, including the use of condoms. Its original stance was that artificial contraception is immoral. But, in the face of a huge AIDS crisis, Pope Benedict XVI conceded that "in certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, [condom use] can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality."

Today, thankfully, we are living in a different age. Although some places of worship continue to reject some of the most vulnerable Americans for being gay, drug users or sexually promiscuous, a growing number of faith communities have evolved and expanded to show love and support to people living with, or at high risk for, HIV.

The Emergence of Shining Lights

Although faith communities have been criticized for shunning people living with HIV/AIDS, a strong base of religious and spiritual groups has always looked beyond the virus and focused on the humans it affects and the healing that is needed. National faith-based organizations (FBOs) such as Catholic Charities USA, The Jewish Board of Family and Children Services and The Islamic Society of Northern America have worked tirelessly for decades to fill that social-work void.

On a local scale, the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco has been caring for people with HIV and AIDS since the early 1980s, hosting AIDS groups and establishing an AIDS ministry team. The Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which began in 1987, grew into the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which brings together people from many religions to mobilize faith communities and pray for resolution.

Even individual religious leaders have been known to take a stand against the epidemic. For example, Imam Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood Inc. in New York City has served as a counselor to Muslims living with AIDS since 1990. He is the co-founder of the African-American Muslim Commission on HIV/AIDS.

Religion, Politics and HIV Intersect

While government agencies and policies have traditionally steered clear of mandating faith organizations to get involved in the fight against HIV, there have been some nudges along the way. In December 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order to establish centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Department of Agriculture and the Agency of International Development.

Through this order, a few doors opened. One was to eliminate some roadblocks that prevented faith-based organizations from participating in social services. Another was to provide funding. The New Partners Initiative (NPI) was created under the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) umbrella to provide grants, totaling around $200 million, for HIV/AIDS prevention and care in 14 of 15 target countries. It was the jumpstart that FBOs needed to get their boots on the ground for HIV advocacy.

And although the original National HIV/AIDS Strategy, instituted under President Obama, did not have specific guidelines for faith-based involvement, the updated community action plan framework for 2020 does. Under Goal #3, "Reducing HIV-related disparities and health inequalities," it is suggested that community-based groups reach out to faith-based organizations "to address stigma related to HIV, LGBT persons, substance use disorders, intimate partner violence, and other issues."

The Integral Role of Faith-Based HIV Services

Faith-based organizations have historically played an important role in delivering health and social services. They engage in community health activities that bridge that gap that stigma creates between people living with the virus and the health care community. In many Latin American countries, FBOs have provided hospice and pastoral care for those who are dying, as well as support for their families. They are also leaders in reducing stigma through sermons and solidarity marches.

Additionally, many FBOs provide outreach services for people living in rural areas, away from major cities where HIV resources are readily accessible. The World Health Organization strongly recommended that policymakers work with FBOs when creating policy in African countries, as religion on that continent has a large influence over health care practices.

What can faith communities do to help reduce HIV infection rates?

  • Educate the leadership and encourage them to get tested. Whatever your plans are for getting your faith community involved in HIV advocacy, it must start with the leaders. Host an educational session specifically for them so that they can speak from facts. Let them know of the importance of getting tested and see whether they are willing to get tested to set an example.
  • Invite people living with HIV and AIDS to speak. Be sure to select a diverse group of speakers so that your audience will see that this virus can affect anyone.
  • Keep quality, factual testing materials on hand at all times. Maybe congregants don't want to ask a minister directly about the virus, but they could be willing to take information home. Places of worship should keep materials on hand and located in a central area for everyone to access.
  • Speak out against stigma. There is nothing loving about judgment. And it sends the wrong message. Ask church leaders and members to be vocal about their support of wellness and knowing one's HIV status.
  • Normalize HIV testing. If you have a health fair, make sure that it includes HIV testing as a part of routine screening. This is an additional way to reduce stigma.

Faith-based organizations are in constant transition. They struggle to walk a line between maintaining their traditional values and rituals and coping with ever-changing social issues. But for those who are willing to evolve, the support is out there. Just take the first step.