When I contracted HIV, all the existential questions that organized religion seems designed to address popped up. Why me? Why now? And where was God? If He existed, how could He have let me—and 66 million others—contract HIV?
Though it had been years since I’d been a practicing Catholic, when I was diagnosed, the religious influence of my youth returned. I felt as if my church—and all of society—was ashamed of me. I felt stigmatized for getting infected. I felt that I’d been a bad girl by having unprotected sex outside of marriage and now I was going to pay the dearest price (my life) for my “sin.” Rationally, I didn’t believe that AIDS was punishment for anything—it was simply biology gone awry, like cancer. But, irrationally, I wondered if there was truth to the notion that AIDS was karmic payback, on a grand scale, for damnable behavior that could never be forgiven.
I struggled to determine whether having HIV really made me a bad person. Just in case, I searched the Bible for examples of sinners being granted absolution. I found the story of the adulterous woman whom Jesus saved from stoning by suggesting that those in the crowd without sin be the first to throw stones at her (not a pebble was tossed). It seemed that even if contracting HIV was divine retribution, there was hope for forgiveness. And, I decided that even if the church couldn’t find it in its heart to forgive me, I’d strike up my own personal line of communication with God and ask Him directly. I promised that if He could help me get rid of the pain I was suffering, I’d try to help others too.
It is incredibly reassuring to see so many faith-based organizations, including evangelical Christian ones, around the world beginning to challenge how they view and treat those of us living with HIV. With increasing regularity, many churches, of different denominations, are stepping up to the pulpit, starting and spreading HIV ministries. While organized religions still have a long way to go in terms of addressing issues such as homosexuality and condom use, they’re beginning to see that they can play a vital role in helping to stop the plague. Sure, you could argue that they should have taken a more compassionate stance from the get-go. That could be said of a lot of people or organizations. It’s tragic that the AIDS pandemic had to become a global humanitarian crisis before some religious groups decided they could no longer ignore the suffering before them. But it’s heartwarming to see that even people who once ignored those of us living with HIV are now listening to our stories, welcoming us into their congregations, offering us love and support. Kay Warren, for example, one of the most influential leaders among evangelical Christians worldwide, sees the value of the church as an existing grassroots network capable of distributing information, health care and empathy. No matter what each of us believes or how different our approaches to worship, I think it’s possible to understand the universal need for love and support and the power of faith to deliver us all.