It was Friday morning, the last day of the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Having attended the opening plenary, I had arranged to meet someone in the PLHIV (people living with HIV) lounge. And just there, waiting for my colleague, I had the chance encounter that helped me crystalize much of what had happened during the ensuing week.
In the interfaith pre-conference, we focused heavily on how we could continue to equip the faith community to greater and more meaningful engagement with HIV. The sessions in the FBO (faith based organizations) track showed clearly how we were developing tools to support those referred to as “key populations”, and as a parting blow, while asking a question in the session on the intersectionality between LGBTI human rights and HIV, I was told that hell would freeze over before they chose to form alliances with people of faith in addressing what we may consider common goals. Faith was the enemy.
Here before me, almost surreal, in the lounge for PLHIV, a nun in her habit walked over to me, a priest in his clerical collar. Stigma around HIV has been high within the faith community, and for this little drama to unfold was of itself a miracle. As it was, I was used to being questioned when entering the PLHIV lounge for the first time: “Father, you do know this lounge is reserved for people living with HIV?”
As the nun came and sat opposite me, we engaged on the theme which so many within the faith community find difficult: the key affected populations.
This conference had seen much new knowledge and research presented:
- Isolating the various antibodies produced by the body to kill HIV and seeing how their effect – and this has given tools to develop more effective prevention and therapeutic vaccines;
- A greater arsenal of tools to use in prevention has been developed, including condoms, vaginal and rectal gels, new formulas for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), and slow release vaginal rings;
- Addressing the new field of HIV and aging – a challenge never anticipated, but very encouraging for those of us who have crept over the 50 threshold; and
- Identifying the gaps in the response.
Focusing our attention on 2030, the executive director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibe, had given us the map of getting to the end of AIDS. Getting to this target will involve careful planning and methodical systematic scaling up of prevention, treatment, care and support from now until then, not a quick dash to the finishing line.
The first goal on the road is to achieve the 90, 90, 90 by 2020: 90% of people in the world tested for HIV, 90% of those who test HIV positive put on treatment, and 90% of those put on treatment achieving viral suppression to an undetectable level. (It has of course been asked, and who is the 10, 10, 10!)
The nun sitting across from me was clearly someone who had dedicated her life to service those who Jesus served, those on the margins of society. She reminded me of an encounter I had with another nun in South Korea. She brought several young gay men and transgender women, some with disabilities, all living with HIV, to the interfaith pre-conference for the ICAAP (International Conference on AIDS in Asia/Pacific) in 2011. As these young people got up and spoke about the pain of rejection they suffered at the hand of the church, the person holding their hand, drying their tears, was to them not a nun. She was their mother, she lived with them, cared for and loved them. To these brave PLHIVs, she was in no way related to the established church, she was just “sister”.
Now another Sister sat opposite me, and asked me: “Father, we know we must reach out to all of God’s children in this journey with HIV. And that we must make special efforts to reach gay men, people who use drugs, and sex workers. This is easy for me. The gay men are simply who God created them to be; people who use drugs need our help to deal with their brokenness and addiction; but what do you say about sex workers?”
One of the common themes I have tried to address in helping faith communities engage more positively with HIV is the complete lack of competence we have in dealing with human sexuality. Early on in our response, faith communities came to the table and offered palliative care. We helped people die with dignity. Overcoming the false teaching of “AIDS is God’s punishment for sin”, we were able to give messages of inclusion from our churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. Faith communities are responsible for up to 80% of healthcare in many areas of the world, and extending healthcare services both for the treating of opportunistic infections and antiretrovirals is demanded of anyone involved in providing medical interventions. And yes, many and obvious gaps still exist in all of the responses to HIV I have described above, but at their root is a moralistic attitude to HIV derived from the crippling dogmas and theological reflections on sex, sexuality and gender.
There is however a point of entry presented to us right at the beginning of the New Testament, which is seldom looked at, and this is the genealogy of Jesus. Something revolutionary happened in the presentation of Jesus’ genealogy – it was always traced by the male line, but in Jesus’ genealogy, four women are reflected, and these four women tell an interesting story of inclusiveness:
- Tamar – Her husband died, and to have a child, she acted as a prostitute with her father-in-law. When the twins were born they were acknowledged, even though born of incest, and they form part of Jesus’ genealogy;
- Rahab – A famous sex worker working in Jericho, she hid the Israelites and made it possible for them to take the land of Canaan. This sex worker is recorded as part of Jesus’ genealogy;
- Ruth – The migrant, the alien in the land, the beggar, picking up the scraps after the farmers had harvested, she is recorded in Jesus’ genealogy; and finally
- Mary, ever virgin, Blessed Mother of God, was a young teenager pregnant without being married, and finally became a child bride to a much older man. Mary the Queen of Heaven, highly revered in our churches, was a social outcast saved by the generosity of a much older man.
These four women record a remarkable history which most people would want to deny, yet Jesus embraces. Jesus the Christ not only the Son of God but is fully human, and the decent of sex workers, migrants and teenage pregnancy. Why should we reach out to those on the fringes of society? Not only because they are the people Jesus would reach out to, but because in so many ways, they are more fully representative of who Jesus is!
Finally, I also shared with this nun who came to engage me whenever someone encountered Jesus, His words to them were first and foremost: “What would you have me do for you?” Not, why are you living your lifestyle? Or Are you not ashamed of yourself? Or, when you have turned from your sinful ways we can talk again. No, Jesus simply reaches out to people where they are, and there reminds us that God is present in the difficulty and dirtiness of our everyday life.
Perhaps we should try to be more like Jesus, then we would not need UNAIDS to remind us to reach out to the marginalized and vulnerable, because we would be there already.