December 1 is World AIDS Day. In many cases people living with HIV/AIDS have a greater chance of being at risk of suffering from hunger and poverty as well. For more information see the ELCA strategy on HIV/AIDS or look for worship resources.
Attending the International AIDS Conference this past summer helped me realize stigma is something I can help confront. The truth is, I personally cannot cure those who are infected, but I personally can fight stigma, face my own stigmas, and acknowledge cultural situations that make stigma thrive, within society and the church.
Preparing for IAC I began to consider stigma and what it meant, how do people experience it, what are its effects and implications? It was easy to think of stories from the Bible of how Jesus took the “stigmas” of his day and called people to wholeness and healing. Stories like: people with leprosy being banded from mainstream society, the paralytic man forced to become a beggar to survive, blind Bartimaeus, Lazarus, and the woman at the well being condemned because of her past. These stories are important because they challenge the notions of sickness, sin, outcast and “the other.” What is interesting is Jesus confronts these themes and asks questions like, “Let you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus confronts marginalization and stigma reminding us to be careful of judgment and condemnation of others in light of our own shortcomings.
With the world of HIV/AIDS in mind, consider who might be on today’s list. A newly infected/diagnosed 20 year old gay man in L.A., twin babies born infected in Uganda, the transgender youth forced to become a sex worker in order to eat, the immigrant who works a low paying job without health care, AIDS orphans who grow up without family or who think life is about sickness and devastation, the husband who’s been secretly living with HIV for years and exhausted his finances because he thought he would die, the gay men/women who because of cultural realities fears family abandonment because of his/her sexual orientation, the person who believes intimacy is participating in anonymous sex rather than an open honest relationship, the mother living with AIDS who never tells her children they are HIV+, etc.
Jesus actions in the lives of those who experienced stigma brought healing and newness. He made an incredible difference as he addressed the ignorance of stigma and discrimination. People of faith are called to follow Jesus example. The apostle Paul reminds us “there is nothing that can separate a person from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Through the risen Christ, we are given the same ability and authority to make a change in the lives of those who suffer.
When we reach out to anyone affected by “stigma” with God’s love and grace there is healing. We counteract stigma when we remind people they are beautiful creations of a loving God and bring the awareness of God’s love by creating safe, caring environments for people to connect and share with one another to bring hope, and as we really listen to the concerns of others without sharing our opinions or advise we empower them to work through depression, anger, fear and frustration. Whenever we fight for equal rights for all people we make a change. As we provide education regarding safe sex practices, the use and availability of condoms, the importance of regular HIV testing, treatment compliance, the need for affordable housing, employment, strive for healthcare reform, provide care for orphans, we make a difference.
Lives are changed when we model acceptance and inclusion – gifts of grace from our loving God. With God’s help we make a difference in the world for those affected by HIV/AIDS or anyone who suffers the abuse of stigma by bringing acceptance, replacing fear with love and where open arms of welcome bring hope.
Kenneth Callaghan serves at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, North Hollywood, California.