Wednesday, May 31, 2006

General Convention 2006: HIV/AIDS

I want to return to the 2006 General Convention, and to actions before General Convention related to health care issues. I have focused on the Report of the Standing Commission on National Concerns so far, because that’s where there is commonly a discussion of health care issues. However, there is another report in the Blue Book addressing a category of such issues. That is the Report of the Standing Committee of the Executive Council on HIV/AIDS.

This year’s report makes an important and troubling assertion: that while the problems, and especially the stigma, of living with HIV/AIDS, continue, the Church has appeared to lose interest, or at least focus. According to the Report,

In response to the mandate to survey HIV/AIDS ministries at all levels of the church, NEAC assisted the committee by providing information from a survey they had conducted, summarized as follows: fewer than ten dioceses have active Commissions on HIV/AIDS. With the help of research done by NEAC as well as Jubilee Ministries, we learned that there are several dozen congregations with some involvement in HIV/AIDS ministry.

This is true despite the facts that,

The expanding character of the HIV picture in this country became even clearer after our consultation with the CDC and our participation at the HIV Prevention Leadership Summit in San Francisco. Alarming statistics have emerged confirming the rapid advance of the disease among men who have sex with men, persons of color, heterosexual women, and most disturbingly, that greater than 50% of all new infections occur among persons age 25 and under.

As a consequence, the Report states,

Through the work of the committee in this triennium we have concluded that the Episcopal Church response to the HIV crisis has lost impetus because of a perception that the crisis has become a “chronic disease.” That this is not the case is borne out by the fact that in 2005 there were more than a million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States (statistics from Province Nine and Haiti are not available) and more than 40 million worldwide. How then should the Episcopal Church respond to the mandate in the baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Now, in clinical terms designating that HIV/AIDS may be a “chronic disease” simply acknowledges that people are living with AIDS, rather than simply dying of it. I remember clearly when it was otherwise. As a chaplain, I remember that “unknown disease of Haitian men,” that became GRID, and then AIDS. I remember nurses being afraid to care for patients and staff in emergency rooms debating whether they could take care of “those patients,” whether they would or not. And so I am aware of the medical fact that in the American context drugs exist (“available” would be a much more complicated discussion) whereby the greatest percentage of those positive for HIV can live more or less normal lives for long periods of time.

And in that light I fear the Committee’s Report is accurate: since we no longer expect to see people falling out around us, we are no longer terribly interested. This is not to say that no one is interested, nor to suggest that no one cares if asked. However, we once feared AIDS as we now fear Bird Flu, as a few years ago we feared SARS. As a society we are too often moved only by what we fear most and fear now.

And that is indeed sinful. We are standing as the Episcopal Church, as a province of the Anglican Communion, saying that justice for GLBT Christians is also a call of the Gospel. We are standing and saying that we continue to fight racism, that we continue to care for the poor. Yet in our own context – in the American context – AIDS has not disappeared, but has instead continued to plague all those communities.

The Report proposes five resolutions. These include a call for continuing the work of the Committee (which does run somewhat across the resolution of the Standing Commission of General Convention on the Structure of the Church to move the Committee into the revitalized Standing Commission on Health); a call for a program to fight the stigma of AIDS; a call for a Church-sponsored media campaign to raise (or better, perhaps, resurrect) awareness; for a basic HIV training course for all clergy and for most lay leaders in congregations (not unlike the recent Racism training); and a Church-wide survey to identify and map existing AIDS ministries and resource in the Church.

These are worthy steps, and especially maintaining the work of the Committee (whether on its own or as a ministry of the Commission on Health), and raising awareness. I certainly hope that these steps are approved in General Convention. One is at first tempted to say, “This issue is not going away;” but that hasn’t been the problem. The issue certainly hasn’t gone away, but we have. We need to look again, not to return to an old fear, but to return to our commitment to compassion.

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