United Methodists Aim to Lift HIV/AIDS Stigma
By Denise Johnson Stovall*
The Rev. Shane Stanford leads what he says is “considered one of the most innovative churches in Florida.”
What makes Gulf Breeze (Fla.) United Methodist Church unique is the fact that Stanford is HIV-positive.
He has used that diagnosis as a way to reach others. “I realized I had a testimony that would encourage people to become followers of Christ,” he said.
“I got it (HIV) through a blood transfusion because I am a hemophiliac,” he explained. “For me having HIV is the same no matter how someone became infected. Truth is truth…. Everyone should be treated as a child of God.”
Stanford and his wife, Pokey, were among the 172 participants at “Lighten the Burden III: Working Toward an AIDS Free World.” The Oct. 14-16 conference, sponsored by The United Methodist Church’s Global AIDS Fund Committee, focused on awareness, training and advocacy.
While it might seem normal today for a United Methodist minister to advocate for HIV/AIDS education, ministries and funding, the disease still has a stigma in the mind of some church members, said the Rev. Donald Messer, committee chairperson and executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.
The Global AIDS Fund, which depends upon voluntary donations, was approved by the 2004 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body. Since 2005, the fund has supported 175 AIDS-related projects in 37 countries throughout Asia, Latin American, the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Phoenix reminded conference participants the denomination has plenty of work to do in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” she said with a sigh. “When do brothers and sisters get to pick the harvest that they like?”
Carcaño told the story of a family in a church when she served as a local pastor who were afraid to tell church members and friends a grandson was dying of AIDS. “Pastor, they would not understand,” the grandmother said.
When the young man died, the family had a graveside service because they were not allowed to have the funeral in their church. “I will never forget what one of the (gay) friends of the deceased asked me at a dinner following the service,” Carcaño recalled. “He said, ‘Pastor, do you think the church will ever accept us?’ I told him, ‘You are beloved in the sight of God.’”
Among the conference keynote speakers were Jeffrey Crowley, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, who said the Obama Administration is working toward improving access to health care and social services for low-income individuals and people living with HIV/AIDS.
In 2010, there have been 56,000 new HIV/AIDS infections in the United States. “That sounds like a lot,” Crowley said, “but we had more a year ago.”
Reading a statement from the White House, Crowley said that “the United States will become a place where HIV infections are rare” and where every person, regardless of their circumstances, “will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”
Globally, 33.4 million people have been infected with HIV/AIDS in the past 30 years, said Pauline Muchina, a senior partnership advisor with UNAIDS, who pointed out that prevention is particularly difficult for African women who must protect themselves against men with multiple sexual partners and are often targets of rape during tribal wars.
‘Mobilize the people of God’
During panel discussions and workshops, participants heard from people living with HIV/AIDS, from theological leaders and from advocates for awareness and education.
Brryan Jackson of St. Charles, Mo., told of being injected with HIV-tainted blood by his father in the heat of anger. Bishop William Muriuki Mwongo of the Methodist Church of Kenya, challenged the clergy to “mobilize the people of God.” Musa Dube, a United Methodist theologian from Gaborone, Botswana who also is an HIV/AIDS activist and consultant, cited the use of Scripture in demonstrating “Why We Care?”
Retired United Methodist Bishop Albert “Fritz” Mutti, and his wife, Etta Mae, of Kansas City, hosted a theological education colloquium that included 22 representatives of nine seminaries. High on the list of priorities was developing training curriculum in HIV/AIDS ministries. The Muttis, who lost two sons to HIV/AIDS, are advocates for AIDS education.
The Muttis, Messer and Dube were among the advocates “of an HIV/AIDS free world” recognized during the Global AIDS Fund Committee’s special awards presentation. Also honored were members of the United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference and former President George W. and Laura Bush.
The award for the Bushes was accepted by Bishop Muriuki and the Rev. Larry George, assistant to Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe of the North Texas Conference. George spoke of the couple’s involvement in the issue as United Methodist laypeople and Muriuki saluted the couple for their work in making anti-retroviral drugs available in Africa. In 2003, Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as the largest effort by any nation to combat a single disease.
Louisiana Conference members contributed $160,000 towards the worldwide effort against HIV and AIDS at the very same time they were struggling to overcome their own Hurricane Katrina disaster.
During the conference, Messer announced a new HIV/AIDS fundraising campaign called “20/20: Visioning an AIDS-Free World.” The campaign will encourage every United Methodist to commit to giving $20 a year until the year 2020 to support global HIV/AIDS projects and to reduce the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Each member of the Global AIDS Committee contributed $20 as part of the campaign kick-off.
*Stovall is a freelance writer in Dallas.