WIFI Prayers and Hugs Withheld

My last post focused on the hopeful tone evident at this year’s US Conference on AIDS in Chicago.  While there is still much work to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the end of the epidemic is actually a realistic possibility.  However, with these consecutive posts, I want to be careful and not overstate my own role in this battle against the epidemic.  I’ve merely attended a conference and worked a booth a couple of times.  I’m NOT a hero here.  But I was fortunate to be in the company of several hundred people who are…people who have dedicated their lives and invested their own love and compassion toward eradicating this devastating disease.

Who am I then? I am a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.  Vocationally, I am an ordained Christian minister tasked to help others along the path of following God, offering God’s peace (shalom) as I go.  Probably the most formative thing for me personally coming out of my visit to the USCA was how institutional religion has come to be perceived among the HIV/AIDS community.  I was made painfully aware of how badly the community of people who claim to “follow Jesus” have behaved in response to this epidemic and to those who are HIV positive.  I’ll grant on the front end that many of the attacks directed toward institutional religion are based on generalizations and are often unfair.  I’ll also grant that there are MANY religious institutions who are doing GREAT work among this community (My two personal favorites are Samaritan Ministry & The Center For Church and Global AIDS).  So, before we go any further with this post, if you count yourself as part of this group of people called “Christians”, I would like for you to leave your defensiveness at the door.  Go ahead…lay it down…I’ll wait…leave that whole “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” thing there too…  Ready?

Samaritan Ministry is always one of the exhibitors at the US Conference on AIDS…the largest conference of its type held in the United States. Until this year, Samaritan Ministry was the ONLY faith based organization who exhibited at this conference.  This year, it was great to have Rev. Donald Messer and the Center for Church and Global AIDS at the conference as well.  (from the CCGA website: “Donald Messer is a 70-year-old writer, United Methodist theologian, and retired college (and seminary) president who tells us here that he believes his career may have begun in earnest only after he retired and began to work full time for the organization he founded, the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.”  His book, Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis was a profound inspiration to Wayne Smith.  He’s also a great guy to hang out with over Chicago style pizza!)

Being a faith based organization attending this meeting always makes for an interesting stream of conversations. Two particular conversations hit me very hard this time.  A young woman came by our booth this year and took our “unofficial USCA IQ test.” This is a simple four-question card that opens easy conversation as well as serving as an entry to our door prize drawing.  After completing the test, Nicole asked what Samaritan ministry was all about. She began to tell us her story. She was HIV positive and worked for an HIV/AIDS service organization (or maybe a department of health…hmmm…can’t remember). One moment she was telling us her story and how her pastor wouldn’t touch her when he found out she was HIV positive.

The next moment Nicole was weeping.

Wayne immediately reached out and hugged her. The conversation continued.  It was deep and moving.  I was honored to have her trust and the opportunity to hear her story.  But I was also struck by the amount of hurt that can me administered by a hug withheld in the name of Jesus.  It was a deep and faith scarring hurt.  I’ll never forget that moment.

About 30 minutes later, an African American man approached our booth. He also took our IQ test.  As we listened to his story, we found out he was a minister who was also HIV positive. He told us about attending a “healing service” at a church. At the front of the church, there was a woman who had cancer and who had gone forward for prayer. The minister and a group of deacons were “laying their hands on her, anointing her with oil, and praying for her” (see James 5:14).

He said, “I wanted me some of THAT!” He went forward, informed the pastor that he was HIV positive and wanted to be anointed with oil and prayed for.  The pastor’s response?

“He looked at me…backed AWAY a step or two…raised his hand in the air in my direction…and began to pray. They laid hands on the woman with cancer…I got the WIFI prayer!“, our friend said with an inviting and friendly laugh.

And we all laughed…except it really wasn’t funny. This pastor’s sanctimonious prayer was an unloving action based on ignorance and poor theology. It was the same action that made one young woman weep in her abandonment and a young man laugh at the unfortunate irony.

I’m going to resist the rant that is poised on the tip of my tongue.  I would hope those stories might speak for themselves.  I’ll say this however in closing: I want to be a part of a group of people who reach out and give Nicole a hug and then walk with her on her journey.  I want to be a part of a people who will never be accused of WIFI prayers.  I saw God very clearly at the USCA this year (and each of the other times I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.) Frankly, I saw “the Church” there as well…very active and engaged. To bad “organized religion” is missing it.

Peace!

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…nobody will read this…

(That is an awkward title to this post but I know if I use “HIV” or “AIDS” in the title people will probably not read it…hope you forgive me and continue…)  I was privileged to attended the 15th annual US Conference on AIDS hosted by the National Minority AIDS Council. I attended as a volunteer for Samaritan Ministry which is a faith based ministry to people affected by HIV/AIDS operating out of Central Baptist Church of Bearden (Knoxville, TN). Wayne Smith is the director and has been actively engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS for many years. He’s also a close friend and my personal guru when it comes to this issue. It was my third time to attend the USCA…first time was in New Orleans 3 or 4 years ago, last year in Orlando and then Chicago this year. (I’m hoping for an invite to Vegas next year!) Each of these gatherings have been formative for me as a person but more specifically as a vocational minister and as a practical theologian.  (“Practical theologian” is not meant to be as pretentious as it sounds.  I think one of the biggest problems of contemporary Christianity is the fact that we have solidified theology into a set of propositions to be debated rather than as lenses through which we understand God in the world. Rather than a minister who knows all the correct theological answers, I aspire to be a practical theologian continually developing my theological vision in everyday life situations.  God is present and active in our world.  God’s followers often fail to see this because we’re too busy debating politics and points of doctrine.  But, I digress…)

This year, two particular things stood out to me at the USCA. First…this was a very hopeful event. (A disclaimer…I’m NOT an expert at what I’m about to write.  This is a layman’s attempt to articulate some of the things I’ve learned.) (please check out the second thing I learned here…)

There have been a lot of advancements in our ability to control the HIV virus once it has been contracted. If we can get an HIV positive person aware of their status (more testing is needed) and then into treatment, their viral load (amount of the virus in their body) can be pushed down and their opportunity to live a healthy life increases greatly.  This is wonderful news for individuals who are HIV positive.

The effectiveness of these drugs on the whole greatly reduces the spread of the virus.  Studies are showing that with the proper use of anti-retroviral drugs, chances of transmitting the disease are reduced as much as 90+%…that is very exciting news.  The effectiveness of these drugs shines a light on how important it is for people to know their HIV status and to get treatment if they are positive.  However, this news is tempered by the sobering fact that nearly 56,000 new people contract HIV in the US each year…a number that has remained fairly constant for the last 10 years.  Another sobering statistic was passed along to me today by another friend of mine working in this field.  20% (1 out of every 5!) of the people who are HIV positive in the United States don’t even know they have the virus.  Simply knowing ones status and getting in treatment not only saves that person’s life but keeps the virus from spreading further.  That is why testing programs are imperative.

One very disturbing bit of irony in all of this is the fact that the “Bible Belt” and the “HIV belt” are one and the same.  40% of the HIV population resides here in the southeastern US and yet funding for prevention is lower in this area. Some think our prudishness in talking about sex is a major contributor to the spread of HIV here in the Bible belt.  With the church’s fear of saying words like “condom” or talking about “sex”, I would tend to agree with that conclusion.  I’m all for abstinence…100%.  But the church is being dangerously irresponsible by not talking more openly about sex.

However, another major factor in the southeast is poverty and access to proper care.  If a person has insurance, most companies cover these meds.  However, for those without adequate medical insurance, the cost of treatment is exorbitant.  For the treatments to effectively manage the virus, these expensive drugs must be taken daily.  I do not know enough to get into the debate for or against the drug companies about these costs (pharmaceutical companies are large, easy targets for stones to be thrown).  One side will say that the drugs are saving lives and new and better drugs require expensive research, hence the cost.  Others will say it’s unacceptable for people to be dying when life saving drugs are available but unaffordable.  Taken together, those two positions represent the truth and we’re going to have to finish this fight together.  We also can’t sit comfortably back and label this disease with our ignorance and our stereotypes.  This is a public health issue. We’ve got to quit fighting each other and figure this out.  We can’t solve the problem via political steel cage death matches.  It’s about access to proper care.  Let’s solve that problem together.

At the very least, it’s vital to keep funding stable for HIV testing, prevention, awareness, and research. Testing can now be done accurately with a simple oral swab…no blood needs to be taken.  Once a person’s status is identified, life saving treatment is available.  Once treated effectively, the chance of transmission is reduced drastically.  Taken as a whole, the amount of virus in our community begins to go toward zero.  The disease is on the run.  We can’t afford to cut funding to these critical areas.  They all work hand in hand in the fight to end this epidemic.  It’s an over-simplification of a very complex problem but if the community viral load is reduced to near zero, the chances of transmission go to near zero and then the end is in sight.

There was a very hopeful thread running through some of the talks and conversations I heard at the conference.  I believe, if we keep our eye on the ball, HIV will be could be history in the next 10 years.  But we all have to work together.  (I’ll write about the second thing I learned tomorrow.  That lesson is something about which I have more expertise.  And it’s VERY troubling for all of us who claim the name of Jesus.)

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

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A poem by Emily Dickinson…

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brian—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight

I lost my job a few weeks ago. Funding was down and hard decisions were made by those who make those decisions. I was understandably bitter at first. But came out of that first couple of days very excited about what the future might hold.

A couple of days ago, I picked up my copy of Good Poems, a compilation of poems selected by Garrison Keillor. Almost on cue, the book opened to my favorite (quoted above). It’s interesting how the metaphors Dickinson weaves together in those verses so aptly describe my understanding and experience of this job transition. Though I’ve come to recognize it was time to turn the page from that past chapter of employment and my excitement about what the future might hold is very real, my eyes are still adjusting to the new darkness.

So much of our identity, at least for men, is wrapped up in where our paycheck originates. Not to beat the metaphor to death but it’s easy to become focused on NOT hitting “a Tree Directly in the Forehead” as Dickinson puts it. I look at all the people surrounding me who are gainfully employed and ALL of their situations seem preferable to my own. I realize I know nothing of their stories. Many of them no doubt are wishing for something different. But from the perspective of this darkness, they seem to know exactly where they are going. Climbing one of these trees would provide the safety and security we all crave and also protect my forehead from low hanging limbs.

I’m working to see this little walk in the dark as an opportunity, one that I don’t want to squander on mere security. One of the intriguing things in Dickinson’s poem for me is that our traveler doesn’t come out into a bright light. “Either the Darkness alters—Or something in the sight Adjusts itself to Midnight, and Life steps almost straight“. Our traveler keeps walking and adjusts to the new light available. I guess that’s where I find myself these days. When I’m honest, I can’t deny that it’s a stressful place to be. But also…when I’m honest…it’s very exciting! (of course, all of your prayers are greatly appreciated!)

Peace!