By including HIV testing in health fairs and other health ministries, congregations can help remove the stigma that keeps people from learning their HIV status and if necessary, seeking treatment, the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer said Monday.
Schuenemeyer is the executive director of the UCC HIV & AIDS Network, known as UCAN. He and Lori Tisher, intern for Health and Wholeness Advocacy with Wider Church Ministries, organized Monday's health fair in the convention center as both a service to, and a model for Synod-goers.
The "Immerse Yourself in Healthy Living" Health Fair included free, confidential HIV testing, along with glaucoma and blood pressure screenings and chair massages. Participating organizations shared information about diabetes, cancer, visual impairment, aging and prescription medications.
There are more than 56,000 new infections in the United States every year, Schuenemeyer said, adding that of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S., 20 percent don't know they are infected.
The sooner people know their status, the more likely they are to take precautions to avoid infecting others, he said.
In a health fair setting, HIV testing "becomes just another health screening" rather than something requiring a special trip to an HIV/AIDS clinic or a doctor's office, Schuenemeyer explained.
Churches can invite the health department or local HIV/AIDS organization to conduct the testing, as well as pre- and post-test counseling, he said. But people who come for a medical test — any type of test — may also need pastoral counseling if the news is bad.
UCAN's website, www.ucaninc.org, offers a study curriculum and other resources for HIV/AIDS education and testing. They assist churches in becoming "HIV Competent" by assessing a congregation's capacity to respond to HIV.
"And then we walk with them as they develop and implement their plans," said Schuenemeyer.