by Andy Lang
Two seven-year-old girls were playing with Barbie dolls. Not a conventional setting for a conversation about AIDS. But that's how the story told by Jane Willard, Christian education minister at Waterbury (Vt.) Congregational UCC, begins.
One of the girls was Maya, the daughter of a church school teacher. "She had gone to visit a friend, and they were playing with their dolls," Willard says. "Her friend said, 'My Barbie has AIDS, so you can't play with her.' Maya said, 'Yes, I can!
"' No,' her friend said, 'you can't touch people with AIDS.' Maya said, 'Yes, you can! And you can kiss them and you can hug them. I learned that at church school, so I know it'sthe truth.'"
The Waterbury church was the first in the country to use Affirming Persons-Saving Lives, the curriculum for AIDS education and prevention available from the United Church of Christ Wider Church Ministries.
"Most churches believe that if they ignore the AIDS epidemic, it won't touch them," saysPaul Willard, Jane's husband and the pastor of the church. But the Waterbury experience proves that a church can be a place of education, healing and support for people with AIDS and for teenagers and adults whose lives are threatened by the epidemic.
Affirming Persons-Saving Lives makes it clear that abstinence from drugs, alcohol and sexual intercourse is the only 100-percent effective means of preventing HIV infection. But it also gives high school students and adults information on the proper use of condoms. "You can't order young people to abstain, then walk away," says Bill Johnson, director of the UCC's AIDS ministry office. "Affirming Persons teaches ethical decision-making and ethical decision-keeping skills, especially how to counteract peer pressure."
One handout teaches teenagers 20 ways to say 'no' effectively to unwanted sexual intercourse. "The curriculum supports abstinence education with information about intimacy,"says Jane Willard. "It shows how people who love each other can be intimate without beingsexually active."
Affirming Persons doesn't teach younger children like Maya about sexual transmission of HIV. But they do learn that Jesus loves everyone who is sick, including people with AIDS.
The program is "rooted in biblical faith and Christian values," Paul Willard says. "Every class opens with prayer and a Bible reading." The curriculum united the congregation, Jane says. "We were all in it together. Only one family chose not to participate." Nearly 100 members were actively involved in the three-month process, which included a weekend retreat as part of the youth series. The church decided to use the entire curriculum, including sessions for young children, teenagers and adults.
"This is not just a program for youth," says Stanley Amadon, a Rotarian and retired high school counselor. "Parents need to learn the facts about AIDS and especially how tocommunicate with their children." "I got a lot out of the classes," says Walter Gillam, a 90-year-old retired technician for the telephone company. Gillam described the curriculum to his granddaughter, who now has three children of her own. "She wanted me to tell her all about it," he said. "She told me, 'I trust my kids, but if they don't know these things, they're going to get into trouble.'
"Most folks believe that if they see no evil and hear no evil, there won't be any evil," says Gillam. "But AIDS is out there and the church has to take it seriously. I think the future will be better if more people know the facts."
"It's a beginning," says Amadon. "I'm proud that my church went ahead with this."
For more information about the curriculum, call the UCC HIV and AIDS ministry office at (216)736-3217 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.