December 1 is World AIDS Day, an important occasion to remember those who have died because of this disease, to re-commit ourselves and our church to accompanying people living with HIV or AIDS, and to raise awareness to continue the fight against HIV. This World AIDS Day, Pastor Joe Larson of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dak., shares his story of hope in the midst of darkness and the congregation’s ministry among neighbors living with HIV and AIDS in Minnesota and North Dakota. Their work is supported by a grant from ELCA World Hunger.

“Bringing Hope into a Dark World”

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a favorite Advent hymn that puts into words the feelings that many of us face this time of year:

O Come, O Dayspring, come and cheer
   our spirits by your Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
   and death’s dark shadows put to flight;
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
   shall come to thee O Israel.

This is an old hymn. Back in the Middle Ages, an unknown monk penned these words during a dark time. Humanity was threatened by the Black Death, wars and ignorance. Yet, out of the darkness came a beautiful song. Its haunting melody and poetic verses convey the mixture of sadness and hope that go hand-in-hand with a disease like HIV/AIDS.

I know what it’s like to create hope out of darkness. Thirty years ago, I lost a partner to AIDS. Since then, I’ve spent most of my career with programs for people living with HIV/AIDS. For 14 years, I served as executive director of the Aliveness Project, an AIDS service organization in Minneapolis that provides hot meals, a food shelf program, integrative therapies and other supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS.

When I started serving St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Fargo nearly three years ago, I felt God’s call to continue in ministry among people living with HIV, so I reached out to Minnkota Health Project, a volunteer-led program that offers support groups and food assistance to HIV-positive individuals living in rural Minnesota and North Dakota.

Many of the group participants struggle daily with isolation, depression and chemical dependency. Some mourn loved ones who have died. Others have been rejected by their families because of their HIV status and sexual orientation. They come to the monthly meetings for the support and compassion that they cannot find anywhere else.Christmas Gift group from St. Mark's in Minnkota

This year, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church received a Domestic Hunger Grant from ELCA World Hunger to provide grocery gift cards for Minnkota group members. Many of the group members lack the resources needed to cover the cost of rent, food, utilities, and medical expenses. For them, the assistance makes a tangible difference.

At their monthly meetings, I try to offer a sympathetic ear and a personal connection to St. Mark’s community. This Christmas season, congregation members are providing gifts to individuals in the group. When I asked our congregation for help, their response was immediate.

December 1, 2018, marks the thirtieth year of observing World AIDS Day, a day to remember those who have lost their lives, celebrate the progress that has been made in addressing HIV and AIDS, and to re-commit ourselves to the work that still needs to be done to reduce the prevalence of HIV and AIDS and accompany our neighbors who are living with HIV and AIDS. The people of St. Mark’s and the participants and volunteers in the Minnkota Health Project, work together to find light in the midst of the darkest nights. Their faces reflect the light of God that shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.


Consider including pieces from the World AIDS Day worship resource in your liturgy on Sunday, December 2. You can find the ELCA World AIDS Day worship resource, bulletin inserts and more at ELCA. org/HIV.


You can advocate for policies and programs that support prevention, testing, treatment and other important services for people living with HIV. Take action today to advocate for programs that support global health, including PEPFAR and the Global Fund.


Through your gifts, ELCA World Hunger provides crucial support to ministries like St. Mark’s grocery gift card program for Minnkota members. You can support this important work by making a gift for HIV and AIDS ministries through ELCA World Hunger.