When it comes to the response to HIV, many in the faith community have made strides in honoring dignity in people living with the virus. But religious leaders and faith groups still have far to go.
“How is that? What’s the problem?” asked Nick Stuart, CEO and president of Odyssey Networks. He moderated a panel discussion about dignity as it relates to the relationships between faith communities and people living with HIV.
Panelists shared personal stories of ways they have experienced their faith communities’ response to HIV.
Faghmeda Miller, the first Muslim woman in South Africa to publicly disclose her HIV status, spoke about the reactions of her religious leaders when she told them her status. They told her that HIV doesn’t exist within Islam and that she must be a loose woman to have contracted it.
When she told the leaders that she was married when she got HIV, they supported her, but Miller worried about others who wouldn’t find such support. She founded a support group for Muslims living with HIV, where they can share stories openly.
“I’m just a normal person living with HIV. I’m not a theologian. I just practice Islam,” Miller said.
Swami Advayananda, a Hindu monk who is living with HIV, said that invitations to speak at festivals and temples stopped when he disclosed his status in 2010. Advayananda now works to fight against the segregation and ignorance that often accompany HIV.
He met with a group of people living with HIV and asked them how they were affected by the virus—whether in the body, the mind or the spirit. When they answered the body, he told them the other two levels were not infected.
“I could see a light on in their face,” Advayananda said. “I understood that I could reach my goal.”
The panelists agreed that dignity is a human right. Religions preach the holiness of every human being, or the way that all are created in the image of God.
“God rejoices in who we are, and there can be no greater dignity that that,” said the Rev. J.P Mokgethi-Heath, with INERELA+, a network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS.
Although religious groups might judge people living with HIV, dignity is inherent in every human and cannot be denied, said Pablo Torres Aguilera, an advocate for young people living with HIV.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, with the United Church of Christ City of Refuge, said that dignity is equivalent to personhood. When a person is seen as less than human, others feel justified in treating them badly. In justifying their disapproval of homosexuality, people often say that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.
“Well, then who made Steve?” Flunder said. “Because Steve exists. And Steve is also made in the image of God.”
Hindus believe in the unity of creation, as the Supreme Being created everything and exists in everything, said Advayananda.
“We are not only part of God, we are God,” he said. “To deny dignity is proof of ignorance.”
From dignity must come compassion, so “What has gone wrong?” asked Stuart. Why doesn’t religion get it?
We believe that God has the same prejudices we do, Flunder said. People are raised in beliefs that they think are right, meaning that others must be wrong.
All the panelists agreed that interfaith work is key. Judgment has closed many doors, and this work is a way to open them again, Torres said.
For Mokgethi-Heath, interfaith work isn’t simply useful—it’s critical. INERELA+ was formed by Christians, but they’re not the only ones who face stigma.
“HIV is bigger than the church,” he said “But it’s not bigger than God.”
Bethany Furkin is serving as co-opted staff for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, covering the interfaith pre-conference to “AIDS 2012” ― the 19th biennial international AIDS conference and the first to be held in the United States in more than 20 years. More than 400 people of faith are attending the interfaith pre-conference, titled “Taking Action for Health, Dignity, and Justice.” The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is the lead international sponsor of the interfaith pre-conference, working in partnership with The Balm in Gilead as the lead national sponsor. Additional co-sponsors include INERELA+, Religions for Peace, Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, Catholic Medical Mission Board and the American Jewish World Service.