Faith on the Fast Track to Stop AIDS
On September 6th, 2017, I represented the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) at an interfaith conference to stop AIDS. It was an inspiring meeting led by Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer (United Church of Christ) and Bishop Yvette Flunder (United Church of Christ and Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries). One very surprising statistic shared at the conference was that regular church attendance is a predictor to people delaying testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS. This is due primarily due to stigma against people with HIV/AIDS within many religious communities. Fear, racism, and poverty are also barriers to treatment. Bishop Yvette Flunder called on us to shift our attitudes and build a religious culture where self-care is emphasized. She said we need to “pull towards faith and away from fear.” Too much of our religious faith, she said, is fear based. Many worship an Angry God who acts like an alcoholic father instilling fear everywhere he goes. We see this in our society’s public rhetoric, through people like Ann Coulter who tweeted, “I don't believe Hurricane Harvey is God's punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than "climate change."” Bishop Flunder said, “The Earth is acting up because of what we have done to her.” It’s not an Angry God that is punishing us, but our own careless stewardship of the earth that is causing ever more severe weather patterns. Our faith needs to be a way to dispel fear, not increase it. To do that, we need to stop worshiping an angry and punishing God.
This interfaith group attending the conference included Christian, Sikh, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish, and at least one Unitarian Universalist participant. Rev. Edwin C. Sanders II of the American Civil Liberties Union and Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee said that interfaith groups don’t meet to convert each other. They come together to complete each other. That is very much how I view interfaith gatherings. Each of our faith traditions have aspects with compliment and complete other faith traditions. He also said, “We have to be careful not to be overcome by the tyranny of low expectations.” Each faith leader said that all people are worthy of care.
Rev. Sanders said that he was flattered when some of the gay men in his congregation asked him if he was gay. He’s not, but to be so empathetic of gay men in his congregation that they felt him might be one of them, is a goal for which we should all strive. Rev. Sanders said that we all do three things, “drink water, eat food, and have sex.” And it is these three things about which our religions disagree and fight. We find ways to put others “outside the circle of acceptance.” We work to maintain privilege, when it is more important for us to drill down deeper and deeper on the issues of equality. We learn to understand who we are when “The God in me speaks to the God in you.”
The Baha’i representative talked about both the positives and negatives in her faith. She admitted that the Baha’i faith is not an affirming faith for LGBTQ people. No same-sex marriage is permitted. However, she said that there is no Angry God in the Baha’i faith. She quoted Baha’i scripture which says, “Let your heart burn with care for all who cross your path.” The speaker regretted that her Baha’i faith does not affirm same-sex marriage, but she finds enough good in the faith, to stay. Another speaker urged people to struggle with intolerant faith traditions to move them to greater tolerance. Many speakers testified that with patience and time, faith leaders can be changed. However, it takes time and a strong relationship with those you wish to change.
We also heard from Dr. Ulysses Burley and S. Wakefield about scientific progress on treating HIV/AIDS. PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medication which is nearly 100% effective in preventing a person from getting infected by HIV/AIDS. PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is nearly as effective in stopping HIV infection after possible exposure. ARVs (Antiretroviral) medication is getting better all the time allowing most people to live a nearly normal life. Progress towards a vaccine is going well. With all this great science, why do people still die of AIDS? The answer is poverty, racism, and stigma that keep people from lifesaving treatment. Some religions will tell people to pray rather than seek treatment. Needless to say, prayer alone has no reliable success rate in treating HIV/AIDS. Houses of worship can and should be places to help people get timely testing and treatment. I made the observation that the Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ “Our Whole Lives” program gives those who take it the tools they need to protect themselves and those they love. It destigmatizes sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status.
When we marry science with faith, we can protect people from HIV/AIDS.