Charlene: I belong to the Methodist church, and I told my congregation I was HIV positive after my husband died from AIDS last September. I was worried about disclosing to them because sometimes people who claim to be very religious think that you must have done something wrong to contract HIV. I decided to start an AIDS ministry at my church because I realized that there hadn’t been any support for my husband when he was sick. As a new church leader, I still worry about how people in the church perceive me. Does that bother you sometimes?
Keith: Yes. But I think a lot of times, we develop our own image of how we’re perceived and project that onto the people around us. I am a Presbyterian reverend, and I tested positive in 2000. While I was waiting for my results, I said a prayer that they would come back negative. I’ve always felt that people with HIV are viewed as lepers in the church. My biggest fear at first, though, was that God wouldn’t love me anymore.
Charlene: I know that feeling. The church is supposed to be there to help people and to lift them up. God said, “Come to me as you are.” How do I get people to understand that God loves everyone and that HIV is not a punishment?
Keith: You have to challenge their preconceptions. I have dealt with people who’ve said that HIV is God’s vengeance against a gay community or people who use drugs or whatever stereotype they want to use. People who are living with HIV have the power to discount that. I don’t believe in a God that utilizes something like HIV to hurt people. I’ve never once blamed God for my becoming infected. I’ve beaten myself up a few times, but I’ve never been angry at God. As a church leader, you are called to stand up and challenge people to look beyond their prejudices.
Charlene: Then how do I tell them this is an issue people need to talk openly about? My pastor doesn’t want to offend anyone by talking about sex, condoms or the realities of HIV. I think people don’t want to hear about those things in church.
Keith: The challenge in a church is to make people uncomfortable to the point of going out and doing something about it. The church always has been and always will be a center of relaying information, and one of the things your ministry can do is relay that HIV is still there and that people need support. HIV positive people need three types of support: one, a spiritual guide to remind them that God loves them and that things are going to be OK; two, a good therapist who understands what they are going through; and three, a doctor they can talk with. If you have those three, your faith will help you through it.
Charlene: I’ve had a few people in the congregation tell me they’re HIV positive, but they don’t want to tell anybody else. What do positive people need in order to feel comfortable disclosing in a faith setting?
Keith: They need strong examples. People are scared of the unknown. Since I started speaking publicly about my status, I’ve had more young people come to me and disclose. Sometimes, you’ll make announcements asking people to step forward and get involved in the ministry, and nobody will respond. But later, someone will come up to you and thank you for being there for them and ask you to help them get to the point where you are today. That’s when your ministry is working.
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