Presbyterian leaders fight stigma, get tested for HIV
June 29, 2010
At a time when many states are cutting back on funding for AIDS Prevention and Treatment programs, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is stepping up its efforts to fight stigma and prevent further HIV infections. This year, in conjunction with an overture encouraging all Presbyterians to “Know their Status,” the Presbyterian AIDS Network teamed up with the Peacemaking Committee of the Twin Cities Area Presbyterian and a local non-profit African Health Action (AHA) to offer free HIV and Hepatitis C Testing over the course of four days during this year’s General Assembly.
It is estimated that over 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and in Washington D.C. prevalence rates have reached an alarming 3%. The Center for Disease Control estimates that around 56,000 Americans are infected each year, and around 20% of those infected with HIV do not know their status. Studies have shown that individuals who know their HIV+ status reduce their risk behaviors, yet many people avoid getting tested either because they do not perceive themselves to be at risk or because of the stigma associated with testing.
According to the Rev. Emily Martin, Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian AIDS Network, because medical and public health professionals have typically targeted for HIV testing those engaging in “high risk behavior,” such as unprotected sex with multiple partners or intravenous drug use, getting tested for HIV has become tantamount to admitting that one engages in such behaviors. The unfortunate result has been that many people avoid being tested.
In a bold counter-step, more than 50 denominational leaders, including Bruce Reyes Chow and Byron Wade, Moderator and Vice Moderator of the 218th General Assembly, have agreed to be tested during the 2010 General Assembly, as an act of solidarity with those living with HIV and as an encouragement to all people to know their HIV status.
According to Rev. Martin, offering HIV testing at church events sends a clear message – almost anyone can be at risk; everyone should know their status; there’s nothing incongruous about being Christian and being tested for HIV. Being publically tested as a leader in the church, gives that message a human face and sets an example for others to follow. In this action, Presbyterian leaders join those from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the National Baptist Convention, and others, in facing down the stigma associated with HIV testing. 
According to the Presbyterian AIDS Network, the HIV tests are completely voluntary, and the results are confidential. The testers are all state-certified by the Department of Public Health. The tests are over 99% accurate. Chaplains, experienced testers and counselors, and members of the Presbyterian AIDS Network will all be on hand to provide pastoral care, support, information, and referrals if they are needed.
Jennifer Leslie, Ebenezer Pastor Takes HIV Test, March 15, 2010; Dahleen Glanton, More Black Churches Take on AIDS Battle, (The Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2010); Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, U.S. Lutheran Bishops Take Public HIV Tests To Raise Awareness Among Congregations, Support African Counterparts (from Brachear, Chicago Tribune, March 6, 2009); Robin Russell, Bishops Test for HIV as Public Witness, UM Portal (May 10, 2010).
1. CDC 'HIV Prevalence Estimates -- United States, 2006' MMWR 57(39), 3 October 2008.
2. The Washington Post (2009, 15th March) 'HIV/AIDS rate in D.C. hits 3%'
3. CDC (2009, 26th June) 'Late HIV Testing - 34 States, 1996-2005', MMWR Weekly, 58(24); 661-665.
4. Lance S. Weinhardt, MS, Michael P. Carey, PhD, Blair T. Johnson, PhD, and Nicole L. Bickham, MS; “Effects of HIV Counseling and Testing on Sexual Risk Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of Published Research, 1985-1997;” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 89, No. 9 (September 1999), pp. 1397-1405.