A delegation of young adults from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) attended the 20th International AIDS Conference July 20-25 in Melbourne, Australia. Meeting under the 2014 theme “Stepping up the Pace,” the conference provided opportunities for sharing and networking in response to the AIDS pandemic.
“This exposure has enabled young adults to be a part of the global ecumenical movement, touching not only people in their local communities, but peoples of the world,” said Dr. Ulysses Burley, a clinical research associate at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and a member of the ELCA young adult delegation.
“Furthermore, young adult participation at AIDS 2014 is a component of a larger vision within the ELCA to create a critical mass of social justice-minded young people across a multitude of issues including HIV and AIDS,” said Burley in a blog post from the conference. Burley is also a member of the steering committee for Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA steering committee.
In conference workshops, plenary sessions and small-group discussions, ELCA young adults and the ELCA staff who accompanied them learned ways to engage and become leaders in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Rachel Hunstad, a registered nurse in Minneapolis and a member of Westwood Lutheran in St. Louis Park, Minn., said she joined the young adult delegation because she continues to look for ways to “integrate my career with my passions and commitment to the ELCA.” In 2012 Hunstad served as an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission, a one-year international mission opportunity for young adults.
“What a beautiful thing it is to come together from so many different corners of the world and perspectives on the disease to find a mutual experience,” said Hunstad. “I became more able to recognize my own personal desire to fight for the end of HIV and AIDS by listening to the passionate visions of others. It is so special to build a network of mutually justice-minded peers and role models to lean on as I continually seek an answer to the ever-present question of ‘what is my place in all of this?’ How powerful it is to know that I am not alone as I dream up visions, lament failures, and celebrate victories.”
Hunstad said the conference helped her “see that HIV and AIDS is not just a disease of ‘the poor people of Africa.’ The faces of HIV are right next to me.”
Karin L. Klingman, an infectious diseases physician and member of Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C., traveled to the conference with two members of the young adult delegation sent by the ELCA Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod. Both young adults are volunteers at Youth Haven, a camp for HIV and AIDS affected and infected children and families, which is sponsored and run by Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.
In a blog post from the conference, Klingman said that the ELCA young adult delegation was “a thoughtful and eager group who wanted to learn and interact with almost everything that AIDS 2014 had to offer – the researchers, the policy makers, the drug company representatives, the community activists and nongovernmental organization workers. The conference challenged all of us to rethink our priorities and our prejudices. It was a call to action.”
“Attending the 2014 AIDS Conference was so amazing because I learned so much during the workshops and exploring the global village,” said Elishua Greenwood, one of the young adults from Washington, D.C., in a blog post. “One of the workshops I attended was titled ‘Curing HIV.’ It was exciting because there’s so much research behind medicine to reduce the infection of HIV, and that makes me happy.”
Burley said as a young adult leader within the ELCA, he is “tasked with being an advocate for the domestic epidemic, as much of our engagement in HIV as a church has been abroad. HIV is a disease that is impacting young people in this country – men who have sex with men and (also) people of African descent – many of which are our own brothers and sisters in Christ within our church. Therefore, I am called to accompany the church in its outreach to youth and young adults, people of color, and the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex and asexual) community because if we are to have an impact among them, they have to first be among us, in relationship and in community. With no stake in these communities, our church will have no stake in the domestic response to HIV and AIDS,” he said.
Prior to the 2014 International AIDS Conference, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance held an interfaith pre-conference July 18-19 with the theme “Stepping up in Faith.” The event was geared for faith-based groups to explore the role they play in addressing the epidemic. The two-day event resulted in a renewed commitment by the faith groups to “leave no one behind” in the struggle against HIV and AIDS.
“The biggest challenge for faith-based groups is the second biggest challenge for the fight overall – stigmatization,” said Burley. “Discrimination and criminalization against people living with HIV and at-risk populations kills just as many people as HIV does, and the faith community has earned a reputation in being one of the main sources of such stigma. HIV is a medical condition, not a moral condition.”
“It’s important for the ELCA to be engaged in HIV and AIDS work because doing so lives out our baptismal call as disciples of Christ to love the least of these through expressions of grace and just peace,” said Burley, who emphasized that “the way in which we as people of faith respond is a question of our morality, and our faith calls us to respond as Christ would.”
In 2009, the ELCA Church Council adopted the ELCA strategy on HIV and AIDS intended to “add the voice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to that of The Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches in recognizing one of the most important lessons the church has learned in the past 25 years: ‘the body of Christ has AIDS.’”
Along with the adoption of the strategy, ELCA members have made financial commitments to support HIV and AIDS programs domestically and globally.
“As HIV and AIDS will continue to be one of the major global health challenges post-2015, this support (from the ELCA) should continue as long as HIV and AIDS is a priority of our congregations, companion churches and ecumenical partners,” said Rebecca Duerst, ELCA program director for health care, who also attended the conference.
Duerst stressed that the church’s response to the epidemic should include “social and structural drivers of HIV (including) poverty, violence against women, social marginalization and criminalization.
“One challenge facing most faith communities is reconciling our role as a moral authority in communities – which so frequently leads to judgment – with our higher call toward love and kindness,” she said. “We need the courage to show humility and risk being vulnerable and the will to put caring above discriminating and compassion above exclusion. If we really believe in the dignity of all people, we need to act on those lines and be a strong voice for grace and justice.”
“HIV is a human rights issue; it’s a social justice issue, and, therefore, it’s an issue that the ELCA must play a role in as a church that God is calling into the world, together,” said Burley.
More information about the ELCA’s HIV and AIDS ministry is available: http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/HIV-AIDS-Ministry