Many years ago, I worked at a clinic and social service agency that assisted people living with AIDS. It was so long ago (1984) that HIV hadn’t been identified and named yet. In those early days, there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about how the illness was spread, and at the clinic we got hundreds of phone calls every month from people who were afraid—afraid they might be ill, afraid they might catch it from casual contact, afraid of the people who were in “high risk groups.”
In the two years I worked there, I went to some 40 memorial services. I can say that 100 percent of our clients died in those early years. There were no anti-viral medications and the progress of the illness was not well understood, so it was nearly impossible to treat. We heard many stories of discrimination and mistreatment of people with AIDS, even in hospitals—staff too afraid to deliver food trays to those patients, leaving their meals on the floor outside the door. Can you imagine?
Sometimes even the families of people living with AIDS abandoned them. One young client, in his late 20s, asked his mother to come and see him before he died. She lived in another city and kept postponing the trip. The day he died, he was still asking for his mom. She arrived just in time for his funeral.
I was asked to do a reading at one memorial service. When I walked up to introduce myself to the pastor, she wouldn’t shake my hand. Even though I didn’t have the disease, I worked with people who did–so she considered me “unclean.” I am fortunate; while my parents didn’t understand my decision to work at that organization, they were completely supportive, as were my friends and my congregation. Our pastor even allowed the clinic to use our church building for a Christmas party for our clients.
Nowadays, people affected by HIV/AIDS have access to more effective medications and their prognosis is far better than it was in the 1980s, at least in North America. But AIDS has not gone away. In this country, more than 1 million people live with HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control, every 9.5 minutes, someone new becomes infected with the virus. We tend to think it’s a problem of developing nations and doesn’t directly affect our communities, but that’s simply not true.
Does your congregation offer any programs for people affected by HIV/AIDS? Do you have a special prayer service for World AIDS Day? The ELCA provides liturgies and other resources to help you mark World AIDS Day and remember our brothers and sisters living with HIV/AIDS.
Kate Sprutta Elliott is editor of Lutheran Woman Today magazine.