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World Aids Day

To mark World Aid’s day on 1st December, Local Mission Leader Warren Hartley, and ordinand Cate Jacobs have written an article for Together Liverpool to highlight how Aids and HIV are issues of social Justice. Warren and Cate set out several practical ways for church leaders and parishioners to mark World Aids Day and how we can all become more involved in this important issue.

Warren and Cate write:

Here we are sitting in the middle of a pandemic and yet the last one is still going on in our congregations and communities. Worldwide over 32 million people have died from AIDS related illnesses since the start of the epidemic, and globally around 38 million people are living with HIV in 2019, 1.8 million of them are children under 15 years of age[1].

These figures are staggering and continue to grow! It is tempting to think that this illness is found only in the developing world. Yet in 2018 103,800[2] people are living with HIV in the UK, of these, around 7,500 are undiagnosed so do not know they are HIV positive. The number of people accessing specialist care for HIV has steadily grown over the last decade. From 2009 to 2019, the number of people accessing HIV care has increased by around 47%.[3] In the North West of England there are 8717 people living with diagnosed HIV (2017 figures) in Liverpool it is 2.2 cases per 1000 population.

What is HIV/AIDS? HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. ‘Immunodeficiency’ refers to the weakening of the immune system by the virus. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is a collection of illnesses (‘syndrome’) caused by a virus people pick up (‘acquire’) that makes their immune system weak (‘immune deficiency’). You can’t get an AIDS diagnosis unless you’re already HIV positive. HIV has been passed on between humans for many decades but was only identified in the early 80s.[4]

HIV and AIDS is a social justice issue both locally and globally as there is still significant stigma attached to being HIV positive. There is statistically a good chance that someone in your congregation is living with HIV but won’t feel comfortable sharing their HIV status with their church community for fear of stigma, real or imagined.

But what do we mean by social justice? The best definition we’ve found is based on Catholic Social Teaching which emphasises:

• Life and Dignity of the Human Person.
• Solidarity.
• Care for God's creation

UNAIDS cautions “there has been unequal progress in reducing new HIV infections, increasing access to treatment, and ending AIDS-related deaths, with too many vulnerable people and populations left behind. Stigma and discrimination, together with other social inequalities and exclusion, are proving to be key barriers.”

As Christians we are committed to the life and dignity of the human person and we are called to stand in solidarity with those who suffer caring for all of God’s creation. Richard Rohr says it well that as Christians we are called to “love God and love what God loves which is everything and everyone!”.

At the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, churches and church leaders including here in the UK often declared AIDS to be God’s punishment yet others Christians were inspired to step in and offer physical and spiritual care to those diagnosed.[5] Many people living with HIV have found it exceedingly difficult to forgive the church for this ignorant proclamation and while it may be many decades ago, the judgementalism remains fresh in the consciousness and indeed in extreme examples the attitude still continues in some church circles.

To show how this affects people, a survey by National AIDS Trust highlighted:

  • 13 % report avoiding visiting the GP because they feared being treated differently
  • 21 % of gay men living with HIV report they have been discriminated against in work.
  • 18 % of those surveyed report they’d had suicidal thoughts in the past year.
  • 17% of people living with HIV report ‘often’ skimping on food because of poverty.
  • 15% said they’ve fallen behind with the bills

The fastest growing demographic of people within the UK being diagnosed with HIV is heterosexual people over the age of 50. In 2018 of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK, 60% of heterosexual men were diagnosed late; 64% of people aged 65 and older[6]. The stigma and discrimination around HIV is a barrier to early diagnosis and the illness is significantly harder to control if detected late

So how do we break through the barriers of not talking about sex in our church and congregations and having these brave conversations so that parents can talk to their children in helpful/supportive way and that adults can support one another?

The first step is suspending judgement, and creating spaces where these vulnerable conversations can take place without fear of ignorance, stigma, discrimination or spiritually abusive attempts at “healing”. This is about not making assumptions or judgements on the means of transmissions and looking at, caring and supporting the whole person, the beloved child of God within our communities.

There is also good news to share. In 2018 the UK continued to achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target with 93% of those living with HIV being diagnosed, 97% of those on HIV treatment and 97% of them having an undetectable viral load.[7] If someone is diagnosed early, and receives effective treatment their life expectancy is around the UK average. Even more if a person has an undetectable viral load they CANNOT pass the virus on. A recent campaign U=U makes this point emphatically: Undetectable equals Untransmittable.

Locally the city of Liverpool has signed up to the UN’s Fast Track City[8] programme to deliver on the commitments of the Paris Declaration to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030 and to address disparities in access to basic health and social services, social justice and economic opportunities.

Sahir House is a charity providing HIV support, prevention, information and training in Merseyside. Every year, in the run up to World AIDS Day on December 1st, they co-ordinate campaigns on HIV Awareness, HIV Testing culminating each year in a vigil to remember those who have died on World AIDS Day itself.

There is a lot of work to be done and yet there is hope. “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” Lamentations 3:21-23

What can you do to show support and learn more? Here’s just a few ideas

  • Pray – pray for the people who live with HIV and pray for a world free of stigma and discrimination and be open to what God may be calling you to do
  • Buy and wear a red ribbon on December 1st and to show your support and raise money for HIV support services
  • Attend the online Sahir House World AIDS Day vigil on December 1st (www.sahir.org.uk)
  • Take a test and know your own HIV status
  • Dedicate a service to people living with HIV and the memory of those who have died (see liturgical resources below)
  • Educate yourself about HIV and share resources within your church communities to reduce ignorance and stigma
  • Create spaces for people to share so that they know they can share this part of their lives with their church community
  • Support Sahir House. Volunteer your time or raise money, undertaking HIV awareness training.
  • Register with Sahir House for their Light the Town Red campaign and light up your church in red lights on December 1st
  • Become an HIV Champion – by taking part in the Sahir House social media campaign (details at www.sahir.org.uk

Some Liturgical Resources to put a service together:

  1. https://www.manyvoices.org/blog/resource/litany-for-world-aids-day/
  1. https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/seasons-and-themes/special-sundays/world-aids-day/
  1. https://kaapkerk.co.za/guidelines-for-world-aids-day-worship-service/
  1. https://www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/worship/prayer-world-aids-day
  1. https://cafod.org.uk/content/download/627/5866/version/6/Prayer_HIV_World-AIDS-Day-Franciscan_Prayer.pdf
  1. https://www.ionabooks.com/product/world-aids-day-december-1st-pl10068/
  1. https://www.ionabooks.com/product-tag/resources-for-world-aids-day/
  1. https://cafod.org.uk/content/download/14673/116660/version/5/file/HIV-Resources-FaithLeaders-AfricaAsiaLatinAm.pdf
  2. http://www.e-alliance.ch/en/s/hivaids/stigma/index.html

Support Groups:

If you know someone who is living HIV there are sources of specialist help available both Christian and secular here are just a few:

  1. Sahir House - https://sahir.org.uk/
  1. Positive Catholics - http://caps-uk.org/positive-catholics/about-positive-catholics/
  1. Terence Higgins Trust - https://www.tht.org.uk/?gclid=CjwKCAjw2dD7BRASEiwAWCtCb1wQkZi3o28SODa8_y2rNJBmOw9rWjQHW5L-AOeWV0GxvmyyksiK1hoCAR4QAvD_BwE

[1] UNAIDS - https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet

[2] National AIDS Trust https://www.nat.org.uk/about-hiv/hiv-statistics

[3] ibid

[4] Terence Higgins Trust - https://www.tht.org.uk/hiv-and-sexual-health/about-hiv

[5] https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/14-february/features/features/christ-encountered-through-the-patients-on-an-aids-ward

[6] https://www.tht.org.uk/hiv-and-sexual-health/about-hiv/hiv-statistics

[7] ibid

[8] https://www.unaids.org/en/cities