Faiths Unite; Barriers Fall: The Inaugural National Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Candace Y.A. Montague

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King wrote: "So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often, it is the arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are." But, on Sunday, August 27, faith leaders and members of the Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Bahá'í and Buddhist communities chose to buck the status quo in defense of people living with HIV and AIDS. The inaugural National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day (NFHAAD) faith walk and rally kicked off in Washington, D.C., spearheaded by Muslim-based non-profit RAHMA and other faith and non-profit partners. Complementary events were also held in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Atlanta.

It Begins With Prayer

The starting point of the walk was Lafayette Park, directly across the street from the White House. According to the press release announcing the event, the White House location was deliberately chosen. President Trump's cabinet has been much less supportive of national HIV strategies than previous administrations. Ulysses Burley III, founder of UBtheCURE, LLC and former member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS (PACHA), took a moment to speak about his recent resignation from the council and how the community must compel the current administration to do more for people living with HIV. He said: "Over two months ago, myself and five of my colleagues resigned from the president's Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS as a protest to this administration anti-HIV policies. We did so not in a self-serving way but to make a statement. We wanted to say that we will not be accomplices to the demise of the American people, especially [people living with HIV and AIDS]."

When all scheduled leaders arrived, they began with an interfaith prayer. They prayed for the sick, the healthy, leaders and community members, alike. They prayed for a peaceful day and rally that would merge voices and make a bold statement. Most importantly, they prayed for a cure: "One day. Each year. Until we find a cure."

One Mic With Many Voices

As the rally convened, speakers and performers seized the opportunity not only to speak out against HIV stigma and silence but also to educate the crowd and declare their intentions to do more to fight HIV. RAHMA founder and NFHAAD chief organizer Khadijah Abdullah explained how this day is only the beginning: "This affects more than Muslims. It affects all of our communities. But I didn't see it being talked about in many faith communities. It is important that faith communities address stigma. So, the purpose of this day is to have this conversation across the U.S. One of our goals is to have this day on the calendar to make it an official day."

Steering committee member and community activist Elder George Kerr was encouraged by the number of young people who were present at the rally, including those from Grassroots, a D.C.-based HIV prevention non-profit made up of teens dedicated to health education and social justice issues. George, a Christian leader, spoke passionately about the importance of combating stigma: "It is important for my [Christian] community to address the stigma that is still out there. This is real emotional for me because I live with this virus, and I have to keep fighting for services along with other social justice issues."

Khadijah Abdullah
NFHAAD chief organizer Khadijah Abdullah
Candace Y.A. Montague

Young people were not only present at the rally but also were outspoken leaders. Hana Kaur Mangat represented the Sikh faith (pronounced sickh), which has over 25 million followers worldwide, making it the fifth largest religion. Mangat, a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, proudly represented her faith and explained the principles that Sikhs live by. She said that the Sikh community has recently started hosting health fairs at their gurdwaras, or their designated place of worship. In her spirited address to the crowd, Hana reminded the audience that HIV is just one part of who a person is. "When we talk about health, specifically HIV and AIDS we forget that we're talking about people," she said. "Someone who has HIV and AIDS is not just someone who contracted the virus, but they are also someone who could be Sikh or Jewish or Bahá'í. They are a whole person. This is something we often forget." She added that when HIV affects one person, it resonates throughout the entire community. "We don't talk about HIV in our community very much, if at all," she said. "And the philosophy that I hear is that they think HIV affects 'the others.' It doesn't affect us. Well, if it affects your brother or sister, it affects you."

Jewish synagogues and clergymen have been caring for and supporting people living with HIV for decades. Their presence in the struggle is well known. One person who knows that well is Rabbi Marisa James, director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. She explained the historic connection between her faith and HIV and how rabbinical training is now including more discussion about the virus to better prepare future rabbis. "In the early '80s, when gay men began exhibiting symptoms, rabbis and congregations around the city were rejecting them," she said. "They were not sure how to handle it. And so, our synagogue became one of the places where gays in their 20s 30s and 40s came when they knew they were going to need a funeral soon and a rabbi soon. Things are better than they were, but we have so much farther to go. We actually put together a toolkit to train future rabbis on how to have those conversations when they go out into the community. Making sure that the people in our communities living with HIV know that they do not need to hide their status. They can be absolutely open about who they are and be loved and supported."

National Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day participants
Candace Y.A. Montague

The Bahá'í faith has no official stance on HIV and AIDS. But that did not stop Katharine Kripke, Ph.D., from coming before the crowd to speak about the virus from her faith's lens. She educated the audience about the principles and background of the Bahá'í faith and spoke about how they connect religion and science. "We believe in the harmony of science and religion," she said. "There are principles in the Bahá'í teachings that are applicable to HIV and AIDS. People living with HIV are often from the most vulnerable communities in society. The Bahá'í faith teaches the importance of caring for the vulnerable and the sick and standing up for victims of oppression. We address both the spiritual and the scientific and medical aspects of the epidemic in a coherent way."

When it's all said and done, education, respect and tolerance will break down many barriers to finding a cure. It starts with a conversation. May National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day one day grow into many days of collaboration to defeat ignorance, the common enemy of all faiths and diseases.