Theological Statement on AIDS Ministry
On November 12-15, 1987, The United Methodist National Consultation on AIDS Ministries was held in Millbrae, California. Over 400 people attended the event. Sponsored by three general program agencies of The United Methodist Church, the event's purpose was "to enable persons from local churches and annual conferences to develop visible ministries in compassionate and hope-filled response to the theological, spiritual, social, and medical challenges of AIDS."
The following statement was adopted by the consultation's planning committee:
Central to the church's understanding of AIDS ministry are the life and teaching of Jesus as reflected in the Gospels. Jesus' ministry typified engagement and identification with those who were poor, cast out, and sick. We acknowledge and confess that our Church has been slow in developing a caring and compassionate response to the AIDS crisis. We have preferred to live by unexamined fears and prejudices rather than to engage with those who have been labeled as "unclean." This failure is a fundamental rejection of Jesus' healing ministry, as exemplified by Jesus' response to persons with leprosy: those who were seen as "unclean" in his day.
We believe that involvement in AIDS ministries is an opportunity for Christians to learn again that the healing and reconciling presence of God is activated within the context of vulnerability and great human need. We believe that God's presence is demonstrated incarnationally, in the flesh, when people risk rejection and reputation in order to share the love of God with those who are regarded by some as "unlovable."
Historically, the Church has understood itself as the Body of Christ responding to human need and suffering. Unfortunately, we have not always lived fully out of this perspective. The AIDS epidemic is not the first time persons of faith have responded by condemning those who were ill. The Cholera epidemics in the 19th century were called the "scourge of the sinful" ."Respectable" people, it was said, had little to fear. (AIDS and the Church, Shelp and Sunderland, The Westminster Press, 1987, p. 16.)
The AIDS epidemic has caused unfathomable suffering to many who are perceived as not being part of the "general population" (terminology used by then secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler) and has been met with tremendous silence from the Church and other sectors of society. It was not until 1986, five years after AIDS was first reported publicly by the Centers for Disease Control that the AIDS Consultation's sponsoring boards made official statements acknowledging the slowness of the church to respond and calling on the church at all levels to become engaged in AIDS ministries.
One of the important beliefs of the Church is that "nothing can separate us from the love of God." (Romans 8) It is important to reclaim this biblical tradition as too many persons, speaking for the Church, have attempted to place people who have AIDS outside of God's love and in the path of God's wrath. Theologically, we assert that God offers grace to all. Grace is, as Bishop Wheatley said, quoting from a poem by Robert Frost, "something we somehow haven't to deserve", but something we all need.
In the face of the AIDS epidemic the Church can proclaim the gospel of wholeness which it must not trade away for a bowl of "respectability". The concept of wholeness is rooted in the Hebrew word shalom. The Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, also, remind us of the relatedness of the human family. In the midst of the global AIDS crisis, The United Methodist Church and all persons of faith are called to develop scientifically sound, compassionate, faithful and nonjudgmental responses to AIDS as it affects this nation and countries across the world. All people are created by God and subsequently are worthy of the Church's most devoted and loving care. Our response must be in the spirit of the words of Jesus who said, "Come, all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest."