"We walk today to the opening ceremony eager to be partners with the whole faith community and every sector –– with science, with community organizations, with government –– with all of those engaged in this response, knowing that we have a vital role to play collaboratively to eliminate discrimination and make sure that each person gets treatment and care," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, executive director of the UCC's AIDS/HIV Network (UCAN).
With a goal of providing a public witness that faith has a critical role in the response to HIV/AIDS, Schuenemeyer led a march Sunday evening, July 22, to the Washington, D.C., Convention Center for the opening of the XIX International AIDS2012 Conference – in the United States for the first time in 22 years.
"The public witness of faith entering the conference center for AIDS2012 was powerful, and demonstrated the importance of the role of faith in the HIV response," Schuenemeyer said. "The opening plenary picked right up with a blessing ritual from Native American tradition and a blessing prayer by Reverend Charles Straight."
The National Faith in Action HIV and AIDS Coalition had an afternoon workshop inside the church –– during which Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder of the City of Refuge UCC, in San Francisco preached and wowed the crowd with a few verses of Gospel music –– then proceeded outdoors to the 160-year-old church's marble steps for a brief news conference.
Schuenemeyer believes "it is possible to hold affirming values among all the populations engaged in this disease. We have the values of love, and the value that each person as a child of God is endowed with dignity and worth that human judgment cannot set aside."
More than 400 people from a variety of faiths attended the preconference July 20-21 at UCC-related Howard University, taking part in workshops and panel discussions on topics of health, dignity and justice as they relate to HIV/AIDS.
"There was an amazing spirit in the community of the preconference, especially on Friday," Schuenemeyer said. "[There was] lots of networking and engagement in the workshops."
The international AIDS conference, which takes place July 22-27, is in the United States for the first time in more than two decades because a now-repealed government policy prohibited persons living with HIV from entering the country.
While the policy has changed, Schuenemeyer reminded the group of almost 50 people standing behind him shoulder-to-shoulder that others were denied visas to attend the conference. That, he said, is symbolic of the remaining work that remains to address any stigmas or discrimination related to HIV/AIDS.
"If we are people of faith looking for an end to this pandemic, we must look to the future," Flunder said. "We must look to the day when we no longer need an AIDS conference. I believe that day will come, and it will be my lifetime."
During the workshop and rally, there was another march in the city form the Washington Monument to John Marshall Park that featured musician Wyclef Jean, Al Sharpton and UCC pastor and former U.S. Congressman the Rev. Andrew Young.