‘AIDS is not over yet’: United Methodists continue fight
World AIDS Day is Dec. 1. Each year, the commemoration brings people together worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS, show their support for people living with HIV and remember those who have died. World AIDS Day, the first-ever global health day, was first observed in 1988.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 36.7 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS in 2015. Of those, 1.8 million were children younger than age 15.
Medical research has made great progress, and antiretroviral medications now allow people to live much longer with AIDS. Still, while the rate of new HIV infections has fallen by about 35 percent since 2000, upward of 1.3 million people die from the infection each year.
Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the most affected region, with more than 25 million people living with HIV in 2015. The area also accounts for two-thirds of the global total of new HIV infections.
The United Methodist Church continues to assist those living with HIV/AIDS and to educate others to prevent new infections.
Preceding the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, United Methodist church members joined an AIDS researcher and people living with HIV/AIDS from around the world for "AIDS Is Not Over! ... Global Issues and the Church," a daylong workshop at Rose City Park United Methodist Church.
"The name of this event says it all," commented the Rev. Don Messer, "AIDS is not over yet."
Messer, who lives in Denver, Colorado, was instrumental in the creation of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (UMGAF) at the 2004 General Conference. A member of the UMGAF board since its inception, he has twice served as chair.
When The United Methodist Church established the fund, it pledged to raise $3 million through apportionments during the 2009-2012 quadrennium and to provide an additional $5 million through Advance (designated) gifts.
As of mid-2016, the fund has received more than $3.5 million and supported 284 projects in 44 countries, according to Messer.
"One thing I believe the church fund has done well in the past 12 years is its sponsorship of HIV/AIDS education programs all over the world about prevention and treatment," Messer said. However, he added, "We could do so much more if there were more funds available. We do a lot more talking than giving."
In his travels across the United States and around the world, he said almost all people living with HIV/AIDS say what they need most is compassion.
"The antiretroviral medications have improved many lives," he said, "but the stigma remains. People with HIV/AIDS need to be loved and touched and cared for just like Jesus would do. They need to experience the change that comes with the gospel."
How one church helps
Brenda Blake has been on staff at First United Methodist Church in San Diego, California, since 2002. Her responsibilities include heading the church's ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS.
"Over the years, the work we have done with the HIV community has changed," she said. "Early on, there was such a stigma that churches tended to be needed much more. Now, the new medications are really helping people live normal lives, and they don't necessarily need the same kind of help."
For example, the church used to help with transitional housing for people living with HIV/AIDS.
"Years ago, transitional housing really was a place these sick people would go to die," Blake said. For too many, the stigma of HIV or AIDS caused them to be forced out of homes, jobs and other social spheres.
"We did meals, helped with doctor visits and such. But, now, people are living longer, healthier lives," Blake said. "The needs are different."
Blake said some of the best ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS she sees happens at camp.
"Camp gives the people the freedom to just be there," she said. "Everyone has HIV, so there is nothing to hide. It's a place where people become free to be who they are."
Camp Cedar Glen, owned by the California-Pacific Conference, hosts "Strength for the Journey," one of several camp experiences for those living with HIV/AIDS that United Methodists offer across the United States. The conference and San Diego AIDS Walk support the five-day camp in southern California. Staff and planners are all volunteers. This retreat is open to anyone with HIV/AIDS without regard to religion, race, gender identity or sexual orientation.
"Dancing with Hope" is a weekend camp for women living with HIV/AIDS that grew out of "Strength for the Journey" and is particularly close to Blake's heart. The church partners with San Diego's Christie's Place to offer the women a weekend away from their normal responsibilities.
"For many of these women, five days away just isn't possible since they have children, jobs and other responsibilities," Blake said. "So having weekend camp works for them."
The Rev. Jessica Strysko, teaching pastor at First Church, serves as camp dean. "She has been so supportive of this work with these women," Blake said.
For the first time, this year's camp, held Sept. 9-11, welcomed six transgender women.
"It was such a beautiful image, the way these women were welcomed by the other women," Blake said. "All of them had a lot in common."
Polly House is a freelance writer and editor living in Nashville, Tennessee. She currently serves as editorial assistant for Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine.
The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund
United Methodists are encouraged to observe World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 and to support the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (UMGAF) with gifts to Advance Project #982345. Find worship resources for World AIDS Day at http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/worship-resources-for-world-aids-day-december-1.
The top priorities of the Global Health HIV program of the General Board of Global Ministries are to challenge stigma and eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV around the world in line with UNAIDS and World Health Organization (WHO) policy. The Global Health Unit addresses the HIV/AIDS pandemic in two ways:
- Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus in projects around the world in partnership with the UMGAF. Established in 2004, the fund's purpose is to stem the tide of HIV and AIDS around the world, by strengthening The United Methodist Church's compassionate response to this deadly pandemic. The focus is outreach to women, especially pregnant women.
- Education and testing, support and improved access to services in the United States: U.S. HIV projects promote the prevention of HIV and also provide support to those infected or affected by HIV. Support includes psychosocial care, access to health and social services, and increasing the sense of belonging.
The funds raised support projects designed to reach the most at-risk populations of teenage girls and young women, sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people, injecting drug users, prisoners and migrants globally. These groups are unlikely to live in settings that address stigma and discrimination and violence against women.
They are also less likely to know they are infected (The UNAIDS–Lancet Commission. "Defeating AIDS—Advancing Global Health. Lancet 2015) and have limited access to counseling, testing and treatment services.