This is the third post in our HIV/AIDS series by young adults. It is written by Jacquelin Rostad, who attends Luther Seminary. Her home Congregation is Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, MN. She plans to bring HIV/AIDS advocacy into her future ministry.
Bishop Mark Hanson’s call for public acts of repentance by members of the church to oppressed communities was a powerful and proud moment for Lutherans during the 2008 International AIDS Conference. In front of five hundred onlookers, Hanson washed the feet of two HIV+ women.
Certainly the message is on the mark – there is no room for discrimination against anyone in the body of Christ, and the presence of stigma is the absence of Christian love. But the move towards repentance, reconciliation, and lived Christian love cannot end with one leader’s largely symbolic act while the cameras were flashing and all eyes were on him. The challenge now lies with us, the church, to answer the call, to repent for being openly or subtly exclusionary, to make amends for turning a blind eye to those in desperate need. How might the neighborhood church and the individual Lutheran respond?
To truly make amends, a symbolic gesture or word is not enough. Things must be set to rights. Action must be taken. Individuals might feel powerless to respond to the global AIDS crisis – “I don’t know anyone with AIDS!,” or “What can one person do?” But acts of repentance don’t have to happen publicly or on the global scale to be powerful. It could be as simple as church members coming together to create an AIDS visitation team, a small group of people who visit or bring food to individuals in the community with HIV/AIDS. The community church can also help to erase stigma by encouraging church members to get tested for HIV. Familiarity erases stigma, and something as simple as having a conversation about getting tested for HIV can start to erase that stigma.
Churches can begin to repent for the discrimination of the past by welcoming stigmatized persons into their communities. Many churches claim to be welcoming and friendly, but make little effort to truly position themselves as centers of their communities or reach out to stigmatized people in their neighborhoods. Offering support groups for persons affected by HIV/AIDS and their friends and family, or hosting a community meal with a facilitated discussion of AIDS in the community can open doors for conversation. To truly show a spirit of repentance, the emphasis should be on learning and dialogue, with the attitude that the church is already walking with the community, not reaching down to it.
Going forward, we must remain mindful that real people are hurt by the actions and words – and the inaction and silence – of the church. Getting rid of stigma implies opening our doors, our arms, and our hearts to individuals who may have had a very different life experience, and a very different experience of the church. It implies salving the deep wounds of discrimination with the healing balm of unconditional Christian love, even if someone looks different or loves differently or lives differently than us.