…nobody will read this…

(That is an awkward title to this post but I know if I use “HIV” or “AIDS” in the title people will probably not read it…hope you forgive me and continue…)  I was privileged to attended the 15th annual US Conference on AIDS hosted by the National Minority AIDS Council. I attended as a volunteer for Samaritan Ministry which is a faith based ministry to people affected by HIV/AIDS operating out of Central Baptist Church of Bearden (Knoxville, TN). Wayne Smith is the director and has been actively engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS for many years. He’s also a close friend and my personal guru when it comes to this issue. It was my third time to attend the USCA…first time was in New Orleans 3 or 4 years ago, last year in Orlando and then Chicago this year. (I’m hoping for an invite to Vegas next year!) Each of these gatherings have been formative for me as a person but more specifically as a vocational minister and as a practical theologian.  (“Practical theologian” is not meant to be as pretentious as it sounds.  I think one of the biggest problems of contemporary Christianity is the fact that we have solidified theology into a set of propositions to be debated rather than as lenses through which we understand God in the world. Rather than a minister who knows all the correct theological answers, I aspire to be a practical theologian continually developing my theological vision in everyday life situations.  God is present and active in our world.  God’s followers often fail to see this because we’re too busy debating politics and points of doctrine.  But, I digress…)

This year, two particular things stood out to me at the USCA. First…this was a very hopeful event. (A disclaimer…I’m NOT an expert at what I’m about to write.  This is a layman’s attempt to articulate some of the things I’ve learned.) (please check out the second thing I learned here…)

There have been a lot of advancements in our ability to control the HIV virus once it has been contracted. If we can get an HIV positive person aware of their status (more testing is needed) and then into treatment, their viral load (amount of the virus in their body) can be pushed down and their opportunity to live a healthy life increases greatly.  This is wonderful news for individuals who are HIV positive.

The effectiveness of these drugs on the whole greatly reduces the spread of the virus.  Studies are showing that with the proper use of anti-retroviral drugs, chances of transmitting the disease are reduced as much as 90+%…that is very exciting news.  The effectiveness of these drugs shines a light on how important it is for people to know their HIV status and to get treatment if they are positive.  However, this news is tempered by the sobering fact that nearly 56,000 new people contract HIV in the US each year…a number that has remained fairly constant for the last 10 years.  Another sobering statistic was passed along to me today by another friend of mine working in this field.  20% (1 out of every 5!) of the people who are HIV positive in the United States don’t even know they have the virus.  Simply knowing ones status and getting in treatment not only saves that person’s life but keeps the virus from spreading further.  That is why testing programs are imperative.

One very disturbing bit of irony in all of this is the fact that the “Bible Belt” and the “HIV belt” are one and the same.  40% of the HIV population resides here in the southeastern US and yet funding for prevention is lower in this area. Some think our prudishness in talking about sex is a major contributor to the spread of HIV here in the Bible belt.  With the church’s fear of saying words like “condom” or talking about “sex”, I would tend to agree with that conclusion.  I’m all for abstinence…100%.  But the church is being dangerously irresponsible by not talking more openly about sex.

However, another major factor in the southeast is poverty and access to proper care.  If a person has insurance, most companies cover these meds.  However, for those without adequate medical insurance, the cost of treatment is exorbitant.  For the treatments to effectively manage the virus, these expensive drugs must be taken daily.  I do not know enough to get into the debate for or against the drug companies about these costs (pharmaceutical companies are large, easy targets for stones to be thrown).  One side will say that the drugs are saving lives and new and better drugs require expensive research, hence the cost.  Others will say it’s unacceptable for people to be dying when life saving drugs are available but unaffordable.  Taken together, those two positions represent the truth and we’re going to have to finish this fight together.  We also can’t sit comfortably back and label this disease with our ignorance and our stereotypes.  This is a public health issue. We’ve got to quit fighting each other and figure this out.  We can’t solve the problem via political steel cage death matches.  It’s about access to proper care.  Let’s solve that problem together.

At the very least, it’s vital to keep funding stable for HIV testing, prevention, awareness, and research. Testing can now be done accurately with a simple oral swab…no blood needs to be taken.  Once a person’s status is identified, life saving treatment is available.  Once treated effectively, the chance of transmission is reduced drastically.  Taken as a whole, the amount of virus in our community begins to go toward zero.  The disease is on the run.  We can’t afford to cut funding to these critical areas.  They all work hand in hand in the fight to end this epidemic.  It’s an over-simplification of a very complex problem but if the community viral load is reduced to near zero, the chances of transmission go to near zero and then the end is in sight.

There was a very hopeful thread running through some of the talks and conversations I heard at the conference.  I believe, if we keep our eye on the ball, HIV will be could be history in the next 10 years.  But we all have to work together.  (I’ll write about the second thing I learned tomorrow.  That lesson is something about which I have more expertise.  And it’s VERY troubling for all of us who claim the name of Jesus.)

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Homeless

I read an article in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine that I think will be worth your time.  The writer, William T. Vollmann, spends some time with homeless people in the city and provides an interesting look into what I think to be a misunderstood world.  I would urge you to read the article from more of a sociological perspective first rather than putting on your political glasses (regardless of what shade of political glasses you might be sporting).  I’ll grant the obvious left leaning slant of Harper’s…something that might keep some of you from clicking the link below and reading the article.  However, I think this is an interesting (and well written) glimpse into this world.

Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the New Tent Cities

mandates

The people (who voted…more on that later) have spoken.  The midterm elections of 2010 are mercifully past resulting in a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a smaller majority for the Democrats in the Senate.  Now, to those of you that know me, the fact that I lean leftward in my politics is not a new revelation.  However, many of you don’t know that the direction of my current political leanings is pretty much polar opposite of my youthful right wing past.  I’m not writing about that change today.  But that is the context that I bring to this discussion.

I didn’t watch the returns last night.  Instead, I continued my trek through Season 1 of 30 Rock via Netflix.  I awoke this morning, dropped today’s edition of the New York Times onto my Kindle, and read the story I expected to read at the top of A1.   I was not really troubled at all about the results of yesterday’s elections.  “They are what they are” as they say.  A friend of mine (a fellow liberal) posted that “sanity lasted for about 3 days” on his Facebook status…an obvious nod to Stewart/Cobert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held on the national mall this past Saturday.  I don’t believe he was referring to the election results.  I think he was referring to the rhetoric coming from the collective windbags we either elected or kicked out of office and/or the pundits of the TV news channels pretentiously “explaining” the results to all us littles.  His next sentence pretty much sums up the soil from which my cynicism flourishes: “I am not expecting much cooperation in the next two years with continued fighting resulting in an extended weak economy and the poor continued to being trampled.” I really don’t know what actual work will be accomplished by this congress.  But I’m hoping my friend is not prophetic and my cynicism is dashed.

However, the trend is not hopeful.  Sanity is probably still an idealistic dream.  I’m pretty sure what we’ll see over the next two years is a change in roles…the Dems wearing the hats the GOP have worn for the past several years…that of a ball and chain around the process.  God forbid the other party actually getting credit for accomplishing something.  It is a testament to the sad state of our two reigning political parties.  Democrats and Republicans actually share a common objective: gain control for the party.   The thought of working together to accomplish something bigger than any one political party could ever do on its own is written off as simply naive.

Which brings me to the question of “mandate” ( |ˈmanˌdāt| — the authority to carry out a policy or course of action, regarded as given by the electorate to a candidate or party that is victorious in an election).  The victor always loves to claim the authority of “mandate”.  But if we are not careful, the perceived will of the majority often overlooks the needs of those who have no real access to the power structures of our government.  The “mandate” of most or our recent elections was determined by a mere 41% turnout of the voting eligible population(VEP).  Divide that total into whatever percentage voted for Republican or Democrat for your “mandate”.  That leaves 59% of people in our country who failed to vote (in my state of Tennessee, 65% of the VEP failed to vote.  Check out this very informative website if you’re interested in that type of data.)

I’ll not pass a blanket judgement on that 59% for that lapse…their reasons are their own (be it apathy, not registered, disenfranchised, etc.).  But I would like to say that it is my hope that the mandate of the month might be informed by the idea that our nation is not merely a democracy of majority rule but one where it is safe to be in the minority (People much wiser than I have said that somewhere before but I can’t find the exact quote…please add it to the comments if you can attribute it to someone).  All of us are Americans.  Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, rich, poor…all of us.  Is it too much to ask that we all work together to solve the problems facing our nation?  I’ll leave you with a little Bill Moyers.  (and for those who would like to claim the title “Christian Nation” for these United States of America…please meditate on this passage of scripture).

Although our interests as citizens vary, each one is an artery to the heart that pumps life through the body politic, and each is important to the health of democracy.

BILL MOYERS, The Nation, Jan. 22, 2007


…have you ever considered you might be wrong?

There seems to be a disturbing lack of modesty these days.  I’m not talking about physical exhibitionism.  I’m talking about the nature of words.  We (me included) flash thoughts into comment boxes and status updates without much thought.  We tend to listen to people who agree with us.  And then, when someone voices a different opinion, we pounce…its a feeding frenzy.  I’ve long ago quit reading college football message boards…inane testosterone fueled drivel.  And then along comes the election cycle…hard to avoid.

I read a post written by Ron Howard a couple days ago on the Huffington Post basically calling for for honest campaign ads…basically the candidate speaking into the camera in their own words with an American flag backdrop.  No writers…no professional spin doctors…no film makers.  Simply stating their positions on the germane issues of the day.  If they are going to attack their opponent, it would be words coming directly out of their own mouth.  I would love to see this happen.  But of course no one would listen to those ads.

I recently engaged in a little flash discussion with some college buddies of mine.  Both were roommates at one time or another.  Both were groomsmen in my wedding.  Here some 25ish years later, we find our selves in 3 different states separated by thousands of miles and pretty much on different sides on what has proven to be some very emotionally charged issues.  Something pretty refreshing happened.  We all presented our positions without calling each other names.  Respectful dialogue…hmmm….  Imagine that…

As to Snoopy, frankly…no…it rarely occurs to us that we might be wrong.  Mainly because we only really listen to our own voice.  We surround ourselves with voices that agree with our voice.  And then, when a different point of view is expressed, we simply turn it off…either by switching the channel, the station, the website, or the magazine.  If it’s on our Facebook page, we simply try to scream louder than they are.  So…no, Snoopy, it has never occurred to me that I might be wrong.  Probably not anyone reading this post either.

How can we find peace?

some thoughts by Thomas Merton (from the book Choosing to Love the World)…

We prescribe for one another remedies that will bring us peace of mind, and we are still devoured by anxiety.  We evolve plans for disarmament and for the peace of nations, and our plans only change the manner and method of aggression.  The rich have everything they want but happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich.  Dictatorships use their secret police to crush millions under an intolerable burden of lies, injustice and tyranny, and those who still live in democracies have forgotten how to make good use of their liberty.  For liberty is a thing of the spirit, and we are no longer able to live for anything but our bodies.  How can we find peace, true peace, if we forget that we are not machines for making and spending money, but spiritual beings, sons and daughters of the most high God?

I’ll not be able to improve upon that…

“We have no other problems…”

I found this video via a blog somewhere (I’ve read several today and don’t remember where I ran across this link). It was a link/post in response to World AIDS Day.  It is a collection of photos taken with disposable cameras given to the children in the piece.  The following quote from one of the Shange family was simply incredible:

“When our parents died, life was very difficult.  We felt alone, like nobody was going to support us.  We had to change our lives.  Our only problem is food.  This is the only life we know.  We have no other problems.  The hardest problem is getting enough food to eat.”

–Shange family: 2 girls and 4 boys.  Dad died in 2001, Mom in 2003.  Mandla, age 14; Nothando, age 15; Siphiwe, age 19; Thulani, age 17; Sithembiso, age 10; Mahlatsi, age 8

I just wanted to post this. Check out the video and also check out what Oxfam is doing around the world.

http://www.oxfam.org.au/world-aids-day/gallery/