In January, I was invited to join the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) Faith Coalition by my friend and colleague in faith, the coalition chair, Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer. Mike has the responsible swagger of one who would never invite another into any initiative that would be a waste of time. Apart from that, two other vital components peeked my interest making the invite irresistible, namely Faith and AIDS.
In my intersectional work as LGBTQ and Intercultural Programs Manager at the Unitarian Universalist Association, addressing the HIV epidemic is essential, especially as a queer clergy of color living with the virus. The USCA Faith Coalition seemed like a necessary alliance. I began by joining monthly Zoom conference calls, listening intently while interjecting rarely as my fellow partners determined the theme, solicited sponsors, designed the logo, and crafted the agenda. It took me a few months to figure out how I could be most helpful.
Then in May it was announced that there would be a panel on “Engaging the Lived Experiences from the Communities We Serve.” I immediately volunteered because I believe stigma is the greatest barrier to Getting to Zero. The greatest way to reduce stigma is people in positions of power and privilege living with HIV and AIDS sharing our lived experiences in the communities we serve.
Was there a moment of truth where you had to reconcile your faith with your diagnosis?
Yes! When I was diagnosed in 2006 I was in seminary about to become a chaplain in the US Air Force. Becoming HIV positive forced me to have to decide whether to pursue ministry or drop out of seminary and military service. I chose the latter. I believed that if I wanted to live, I needed to leave the church. I was right. Leaving the conservative evangelical church allowed me to prioritize my health, then later find a faith that would affirm my HIV status. The journey was treacherous as life with HIV without faith would eventually prove to be just as intolerable as life in a faith hostile to HIV.
How has living in the rural south impacted you now that you are living in a metropolitan area?
I was living in Columbia, SC when I was diagnosed in 2006. I believed that if I wanted to live, I needed to leave the south. I was right. Leaving a southern city with limited access to social services, support networks, and a living wage saved my life. Relocating to the urban cities of Chicago, D.C., and eventually New York blessed me with the privilege of housing, health care, and nutrition allowing me to cope with the trauma of my existential crisis. Daniel Driffin said it best, “Housing is medicine. Employment is medicine. If I feel that I am unworthy, then a pill won’t fix that.” These vital social support services are what makes HIV no longer a death sentence, more so than the science of life saving medications. Faith communities must advocate for social support services be available for all people living with HIV to reduce the threat of stigma and eliminate transmissions.
What do you think the faith community needs to know?
It is our fault as people of faith that the virus is what it is in the world. American religion, both liberal and conservative, is responsible for the rapid spread of AIDS in the 1980s and the 500,000 deaths by 1990. The belief that any sex beyond heterosexual monogamy is unorthodox has lead to 36.7 million living with HIV today. Because of faith, society has no language for sex and sexual health. Because of faith, the LGBTQ community has been told AIDS is God’s curse for being who we are. Because of faith, sex workers and intravenous drug users remain in the shadows where there is high risk of transmission and limited access to treatment. Faith communities must accept responsibility for the shame and the death that has resulted by developing responsible sex positive theologies that affirm the inherit worth and dignity of every human being.
This is the work of the USCA Faith Coalition. Every year, we gather the day before USCA to discuss and develop strategies to strengthen the capacity of houses of worship and faith-based organizations who are engaged, or wish to engage, in efforts to end the HIV epidemic.
On the one hand, as Unitarian Universalists who believe in the the inherit worth and dignity of every person and the justice, equity and compassion in human relations we are privileged with the best hope of developing a responsible theology and sexual ethic that will support the Getting to Zero movement. On the other hand, as a faith steeped in classism and white supremacy conflated with a liberal progressive theology, Unitarian Universalism in a cautionary tale for how difficult it will be for all faith communities to live up to its own best values and ethics, even with the most open of theologies.
Stay tuned via Twitter @uua_lgbtq for more update from USCA and the lived experiences of people living with HIV.