Need for church response grows as HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to spread | Print |

By Carla Wynn Davis
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Photo: Carla Wynn Davis

ATLANTA-About ten years ago, when Wayne Smith stepped in his first HIV/AIDS education class, the other students started applauding. A member of Central Baptist Church of Bearden in Knoxville, Tenn., Smith didn't realize how significant his church affiliation would be. For those gathered, Smith's presence sent a message.

"The church had come. It wasn't Wayne Smith. It wasn't Central Baptist Church Bearden. It was somebody from some church in this town has come," Smith said.

Smith shared his story Feb. 1 during a special interest session about the HIV/AIDS pandemic at the celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta. Now directing a Knoxville-based HIV/AIDS ministry called Samaritan Ministry, Smith helps provide education about the disease; meet food, clothing and shelter needs; and offer support groups for people living with the disease.

Despite advances in treatment and care, panelists said the HIV/AIDS pandemic still is growing, and churches still need to respond. The statistics remain staggering, with more than 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS and more than 22 million lives claimed by the disease. Each year in the United States, about 40,000 people are infected.

"My heart is pierced by the numbers. Those statistics will help to determine what we as a church believe our mission to be," said Robin Brown-Haithco, who works in chaplaincy at Emory University hospitals in Atlanta.

And that mission, she said, is to embrace and accept people living with HIV/AIDS, developing a pastoral response that treats people with compassion instead of judgment.

When HIV/AIDS first began impacting the United States 25 years ago, it was a "gay man's disease," Smith said. People didn't worry about it because they didn't think it would affect them. It was easy to judge. Now, HIV/AIDS is a disease of the human family, Smith said.

Part of the reason churches have been slow to respond is that they have never developed a theology of sexuality and haven't been willing to "come out of the shadows and talk about sex," Brown-Haithco said.

The church must also become more hospitable and inclusive to people whose lives are changed forever by the disease. Brown-Haithco experienced this need firsthand after her niece died of AIDS-related lymphoma.

"My family had 4 months and 7 days [after diagnosis] to reconcile and bless her—all of her—until she died," she said. "Many [people with HIV/AIDS] die without ever reconciling with their community or family. It's time that the church invite [these people] to come home."

Beginning a church ministry to HIV/AIDS victims doesn't have to be daunting, Smith said. Partnering with the local health department or secular non-profits already working in the HIV/AIDS community can be a strong first step to getting involved. He also advised churches to start small, exploring ways to use gifts and resources they already have. 

"You don't have to invent a new project. Go to your local AIDS service organization. Find out what your church already does well and then offer that up as a gift to the HIV/AIDS community," Smith said.

Educating church members about the disease, including the ways it's transferred and the ways it's not, is one way to combat common fears that typically slow church response, Smith said.

"There is no other disease that we can say we have this irrational fear of being around people with HIV/AIDS," he said. "This HIV/ADS epidemic has been around 25 years, when are we going to get ready?"

"We do have a tendency to walk by, to pretend we don't see and to be in denial," Brown-Haithco said. "I think what we need to do is see people as humans and all persons as valued and worthy and that God calls us to tend to their pain and suffering."

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