My last post focused on the hopeful tone evident at this year’s US Conference on AIDS in Chicago. While there is still much work to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the end of the epidemic is actually a realistic possibility. However, with these consecutive posts, I want to be careful and not overstate my own role in this battle against the epidemic. I’ve merely attended a conference and worked a booth a couple of times. I’m NOT a hero here. But I was fortunate to be in the company of several hundred people who are…people who have dedicated their lives and invested their own love and compassion toward eradicating this devastating disease.
Who am I then? I am a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus. Vocationally, I am an ordained Christian minister tasked to help others along the path of following God, offering God’s peace (shalom) as I go. Probably the most formative thing for me personally coming out of my visit to the USCA was how institutional religion has come to be perceived among the HIV/AIDS community. I was made painfully aware of how badly the community of people who claim to “follow Jesus” have behaved in response to this epidemic and to those who are HIV positive. I’ll grant on the front end that many of the attacks directed toward institutional religion are based on generalizations and are often unfair. I’ll also grant that there are MANY religious institutions who are doing GREAT work among this community (My two personal favorites are Samaritan Ministry & The Center For Church and Global AIDS). So, before we go any further with this post, if you count yourself as part of this group of people called “Christians”, I would like for you to leave your defensiveness at the door. Go ahead…lay it down…I’ll wait…leave that whole “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” thing there too… Ready?
Samaritan Ministry is always one of the exhibitors at the US Conference on AIDS…the largest conference of its type held in the United States. Until this year, Samaritan Ministry was the ONLY faith based organization who exhibited at this conference. This year, it was great to have Rev. Donald Messer and the Center for Church and Global AIDS at the conference as well. (from the CCGA website: “Donald Messer is a 70-year-old writer, United Methodist theologian, and retired college (and seminary) president who tells us here that he believes his career may have begun in earnest only after he retired and began to work full time for the organization he founded, the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.” His book, Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis was a profound inspiration to Wayne Smith. He’s also a great guy to hang out with over Chicago style pizza!)
Being a faith based organization attending this meeting always makes for an interesting stream of conversations. Two particular conversations hit me very hard this time. A young woman came by our booth this year and took our “unofficial USCA IQ test.” This is a simple four-question card that opens easy conversation as well as serving as an entry to our door prize drawing. After completing the test, Nicole asked what Samaritan ministry was all about. She began to tell us her story. She was HIV positive and worked for an HIV/AIDS service organization (or maybe a department of health…hmmm…can’t remember). One moment she was telling us her story and how her pastor wouldn’t touch her when he found out she was HIV positive.
The next moment Nicole was weeping.
Wayne immediately reached out and hugged her. The conversation continued. It was deep and moving. I was honored to have her trust and the opportunity to hear her story. But I was also struck by the amount of hurt that can me administered by a hug withheld in the name of Jesus. It was a deep and faith scarring hurt. I’ll never forget that moment.
About 30 minutes later, an African American man approached our booth. He also took our IQ test. As we listened to his story, we found out he was a minister who was also HIV positive. He told us about attending a “healing service” at a church. At the front of the church, there was a woman who had cancer and who had gone forward for prayer. The minister and a group of deacons were “laying their hands on her, anointing her with oil, and praying for her” (see James 5:14).
He said, “I wanted me some of THAT!” He went forward, informed the pastor that he was HIV positive and wanted to be anointed with oil and prayed for. The pastor’s response?
“He looked at me…backed AWAY a step or two…raised his hand in the air in my direction…and began to pray. They laid hands on the woman with cancer…I got the WIFI prayer!“, our friend said with an inviting and friendly laugh.
And we all laughed…except it really wasn’t funny. This pastor’s sanctimonious prayer was an unloving action based on ignorance and poor theology. It was the same action that made one young woman weep in her abandonment and a young man laugh at the unfortunate irony.
I’m going to resist the rant that is poised on the tip of my tongue. I would hope those stories might speak for themselves. I’ll say this however in closing: I want to be a part of a group of people who reach out and give Nicole a hug and then walk with her on her journey. I want to be a part of a people who will never be accused of WIFI prayers. I saw God very clearly at the USCA this year (and each of the other times I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.) Frankly, I saw “the Church” there as well…very active and engaged. To bad “organized religion” is missing it.