UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2010 / 0812 - Church AIDS Work Makes a Difference

Church AIDS Work Makes a Difference

by Linda Bloom*

August 12, 2010 — In rural Zimbabwe, there is not much relief — physically or emotionally — for those dying from the complications of HIV/AIDS.

But, by training nurses at United Methodist-related Mutambara Hospital and other hospitals, as well as educating volunteer community caregivers in hospice skills, the Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa is making a difference.

That project is among the 155 projects in 33 countries receiving $527,165 in grants from the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund in 2009. The United Methodist Committee on Relief administers the fund.

The Rev. Don Messer and other members of the denomination’s Global AIDS Fund Committee are proud of that accomplishment. However, donations to the fund have dropped from a high of $977,541 in 2007 to $395,851 last year, with receipts even lower as of July 2010.

While the church alone cannot solve the HIV/AIDS crisis, Messer pointed out, its participation is essential.

‘Lighten the Burden’

The committee hopes to rejuvenate denominational interest in HIV/AIDS mission work with its third international conference on the subject. “Lighten the Burden III,” set for Oct. 14-16 in Dallas, will offer participants the opportunity to discuss how to work “towards an AIDS-free world.”

Dallas was chosen as a way to attract participants from the Hispanic community and highlight the concern over growing HIV infection rates among Hispanic and African-American women in the United States, says Patricia Magyar, an executive with UMCOR Health.

Magyar senses a call from the denomination’s annual (regional) conferences for more educational tools to help them respond to the pandemic. Such information sharing will be part of the conference. “The hope is to re-energize and re-charge,” she added.

Messer believes the speakers — who include an African theologian, a U.N. expert, two United Methodist leaders and, possibly, the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy — “can motivate us to see that clearly we are responding from the call of Christ.”

Etta Mae Mutti, the wife of retired Bishop Fritz Mutti, also will share in a workshop session her experiences of having lost two of her three sons to AIDS.

Maureen Vetter, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Neb., has found inspiration from Etta Mae and Fritz Mutti, as well as the stories she heard from local caseworkers dealing with people with HIV/AIDS.

One of the denomination’s “AIDS Ambassadors” organized through the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, Vetter knows of people coping with HIV/AIDS in silence. “I feel it is time for churches to start talking about HIV/AIDS and those struggling and ways we can reach out to others,” she said.

Three years ago, Vetter’s congregation asked the Muttis to tell their story during an AIDS-awareness weekend. Later, they learned about a medical crisis in central Nebraska and created the Trinity UMC Emergency HIV/AIDS Fund to help pay for medical emergencies. “It feels now like we are making a difference through this fund and the UM Global AIDS Fund, too,” she said.

Vetter now leads the Nebraska Annual (regional) Conference’s HIV/AIDS task force. Another grant, for the work of local churches, was established and she has a goal of raising the number of AIDS Ambassadors in the state from 30 to 300.

From Advocacy to Action

Linda Bales Todd, who directs the AIDS advocacy work for the Board of Church and Society, would like to see more church members join the efforts of the AIDS Ambassadors.

She has had her eye on U.S. support of international HIV/AIDS work through the Foreign Appropriations Bill, which is pending final approval by Congress. The House Appropriations Committee has set a total of $6.67 billion for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria funding for the 2011 fiscal year, and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $6.65 billion.

Although that funding is slightly higher than the $6.4 billion appropriated for 2010, expectations of the Obama administration have not been met, Bales Todd added.

President George W. Bush “put the U.S. way ahead of most other countries” in funding HIV/AIDS programs and when Barack Obama was elected to succeed him, “there was an unspoken sense of assurance that the AIDS issue would continue to have high priority in his administration,” she explained.

She believes the Obama administration is still supportive but with so many budgetary crises, “what has resulted is more of a flat funding of AIDS.”

Ecumenical staff members also have less time to devote to advocacy for HIV/AIDS. “Because of financial struggles, the denominations are downsizing their Washington offices, thereby leaving a void in people power,” Bales Todd explained.

“That’s why the Lighten the Burden conference is so important, to re-engage the church on this issue,” she said.

Messer — who has attended four international AIDS conferences, including this summer’s event in Vienna — finds acceptance of church involvement. “Increasingly, there’s been an openness by AIDS activists and government officials around the world to get the faith-based groups involved,” he said.

The Vienna conference, which drew almost 20,000 people, focused on human rights, understanding the scope of the pandemic in each nation “and marshaling the resources to meet that need,” he added.

Messer, director of the Denver-based Center for the Church and Global AIDS, believes that creating or supporting such resources is the type of action that any local church or individual member can take.

Phil DiSorbo, whose organization runs the hospice project in Zimbabwe, certainly depends on such support. “Many people would like to turn their back on the suffering, especially in tough economic times,” he pointed out.

But “the church needs to be in the forefront,” DiSorbo declared, not only addressing HIV/AIDS, but also the social justice, health care, gender inequality and child-abuse issues related to poverty and disease.  “It’s our calling.”

More information about “Lighten the Burden III” can be found here.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.