Shepherd or Sheep?
By Judith Santiago*
March 24, 2011—At the recent African-American Women and HIV/AIDS conference held in Columbia, South Carolina March 3-5, guest speaker Dr. Bambi Gaddist, executive director of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council, engaged participants with a question: “Are you the shepherd or the sheep?” She referenced Ezekiel 34: 1-10, and declared to the more than 100 attendees saying, “How come after 30 years we say we don’t’ see it (HIV/AIDS) as a problem? It’s right before our eyes!”’
Gaddist’s message underscored the consequences of our apathy and complacency of the church in not responding to, or caring about the 30-year old AIDS issue that is especially affecting our youth. She reiterated the scripture reading to emphasize that we, the church, must be willing to be the answer to HIV/AIDS we are looking for and help shepherd the cause to save lives.
“Silence Equals Death”
Quoting from the South Carolina Risk Behavior 2009 Survey and a cultural assessment of African-American youth in the US, Gaddist stated that one out of every three high school students will have unprotected sex with at least one partner in a three month period; one out of seven high school students have four or more intimate partners in the U.S.
With these discouraging statics of risky behavior, Gaddist said, “We have waited too long to educate our youth about HIV prevention in the classroom.” She said it was time to confront our fears about HIV because our silence is causing more AIDS-related deaths.
Gaddist questioned whether the church “has what it takes” to work toward HIV prevention and apply the knowledge that is available. Gaddist encouraged participants to speak up and take action at local school boards to urge the teaching of HIV prevention.
Southern states like South Carolina remain in crisis—over 75 percent of new HIV infections occur among African-American women. In fact, South Carolina ranks 10 in the nation for new HIV/AIDS infections. In Columbia, where the conference was held, the city ranks ninth with about 800 new cases of HIV diagnosed each year. On average, one in 30 African-American women will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A number of factors contribute to the AIDS dilemma for African American women, according to Gaddist. They include barriers to quality healthcare, less instruction or knowledge concerning the use of birth control, poverty, residing in communities where the HIV-infection rates are high, relying on medical practitioners to ask about HIV testing, and gender violence and coercion.
“Knowledge is power,” said Gaddist. “But not without application of the knowledge. It’s time for a reality check. Are we the shepherd or the sheep?”
The conference, entitled Enabling, Enriching, Enhancing Individuals was the first ever African-American Women and HIV/AIDS conference to be sponsored by the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.
The three-day event addressed how HIV/AIDS specifically impacts African-American women and offered a variety of educational workshops on developing an effective AIDS ministry, domestic violence and HIV testing and counseling, and much more.
The UM Global AIDS Fund Committee hopes that this event will be a first among a series of events to address the still growing pandemic.
20/20, United Methodist Global AIDS Fund
You can support educational forums like this one with your gifts to UM Global AIDS Fund, UMCOR Advance #982345. Through the UM Global AIDS Fund 20/20: Visioning an AIDS-Free World campaign, a commitment of $20 a month or more until the year 2020 can provide a tangible response to help those affected by HIV/AIDS. Shepherd the HIV cause with your generous gifts now.
Learn more by visiting www.umglobalaidsfund.org
*Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR