The toughest times in our lives can bring out the best in us. They can show us our strengths, our resilience, our ability to put others before ourselves, and our capacity to be generous and loving. Those times can also bring out the worst in us -- fear, discrimination, ignoring or refusing to serve those who need help, and blaming people who are struggling for their plight.
Throughout the history of the HIV epidemic, we have seen friends, families, communities, and even strangers step up and demonstrate incredible generosity and bravery and make sacrifices to help people at risk for, or living with, HIV. Sadly, we've also seen distressing examples of neglect, rejection, shaming, and discrimination.
Since the first cases of AIDS were identified in the early 1980s, churches, faith communities, and their leaders and members have reflected both the best and the worst in us. Faith communities have embraced people living with HIV, provided loving and supportive care for them, brought HIV information and testing to members of their communities, and mobilized to effect changes that make life better for those at risk for, or living with HIV. Some faith communities, however, did not react with the love and compassion their faith calls for. They blamed, ostracized, and stigmatized persons who were at risk for, or living with, HIV and contributed to efforts to discriminate against and marginalize these groups.
Since the earliest days of the epidemic, we've seen leaders in the faith community working to bring about and support a well-informed and compassionate response to HIV. Today, one of the most visible examples of these efforts is the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. The week is an initiative of the Balm in Gilead, an organization that works to support faith communities in designing and implementing programs and services that contribute to the elimination of health disparities of people of the African Diaspora.
The primary purpose of the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS is to bring attention to the national HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and to the roles that faith communities have had, and continue to have, in HIV prevention, education, service, and advocacy. The event promotes efforts to improve HIV awareness, foster compassionate responses to HIV prevention and care, and support healing through a wide range of activities. These include sermons and lectures on HIV, candle-lighting ceremonies to remember those we have lost, prayer vigils, concerts, and HIV education and testing. A key part of this effort is educating people about the impact that HIV is having on young people. The Balm in Gilead has developed resources that describe key facts about HIV among youth and encourage efforts to promote HIV testing, PrEP, and other prevention strategies.
In many ways, the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS reminds me of the efforts and action that took place in the earliest years of the epidemic. It was a time when most of the work was largely being done by volunteers and community-based organizations. We came together to do what had to be done because the needs were so urgent.
Today, I worry that too many people do not see themselves as having a role to play in HIV prevention and care. Rather, they see these efforts as the responsibility of the government, healthcare providers, or well-funded community-based organizations. The efforts associated with the National Week of Prayer and Healing of AIDS lift my spirit and give me a powerful reminder of the good in people and the power of what we can accomplish when we work together to make the world a better, more equitable, place for everyone. We've made tremendous progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS. But we have not crossed the finish line. We need to continue working on the challenges that remain and the ongoing work that is needed to maintain the progress that has been achieved. There is much more work to be done, and each of us has an important role to play.
Richard Wolitski, Ph.D., is director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.