Religion needs to better honor the dignity of people living with HIV, say UCC leaders

Religion needs to better honor the dignity of people living with HIV, say UCC leaders

Three prominent United Church of Christ voices highlighted the opening day discussion about honoring the dignity of those living with HIV at the Interfaith Pre-Conference for AIDS 2012 in Washington, D.C.

The discussion started and ended on Friday, July 20, at Howard University with reminders that faith-based communities still have strides to make in human rights for people living with HIV.

Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, said during the event's Friday morning plenary that dignity is equivalent to personhood. When a person is seen as less than human, others feel justified in treating them badly. In justifying their disapproval of homosexuality, people often say that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

"Well, then who made Steve?" Flunder said. "Because Steve exists. And Steve is also made in the image of God."

The Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, executive director of the UCC HIV/AIDS Network (UCAN), said of the paths where sexuality, faith and HIV cross, "There's a misperception that the work with the HIV community is done to promote the gay agenda ... People can be pressured to make the wrong choices on their identity."

In order to change those misperceptions and extend the line of dignity, Schuenemeyer said, there must be a commitment to “grounding ourselves in the values of inclusion.”

Schuenemeyer moderated an afternoon workshop, Breaking the Silence, that examined faith-based work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons (LGBT) living with HIV. The Rev. Anthony Sullivan, a community consultant in Chicago for UCAN, was one of the panelists.

"I am an African-American, same-gender loving, HIV-positive clergyperson," said Sullivan, who suggested reexamining the text of the Bible in a new way, and not from the view of the status quo. "You begin to wrestle the with those texts until you see yourself in the text. That you wrestle with those texts that you begin to see your liberation in those texts," he said.

Sullivan asked one of the more complex questions of the workshop to which people living with HIV seek answers.

"What is theology for HIV?" Sullivan asked. "It is a theology of radical inclusion, a theology where we all claim our place at the banquet table -- that we recognize we have a right and a place and space to be there. It is a place of extravagant welcome."

The Rev. Sarah Groves, director of the religion and faith program for the Human Rights Campaign, said society can’t sit on the sideline while people continue to die from AIDS, and cited examples of brutal discrimination and hatred of LGBT people with HIV.

The recognition of humanity and dignity of people with HIV was similar to Jesus’ ministry to touch lepers. "In the early days of HIV/AIDS, people were frightened that if they physically touched someone with HIV they would become infected," Groves said. "Recognizing our whole humanity should be the starting point for our work as people of faith. Treating HIV while allowing the stigma against LGBT people to remain unchallenged is essentially a ministry of avoidance."

Groves said a majority of HIV funding is channeled through religious organizations, which are selective in their scope by excluding LGBT persons.

Bishop Christopher Ssenyojo of Uganda said that there cannot be a separation between HIV/AIDS programs, and that LGBT people must be supported in those programs, otherwise "you are going to have LGBT people as an excluded group given over to genocide."

Uganda is one of several sub-Saharan countries that prohibits same-sex marriages. A proposed anti-homosexuality bill would broaden the criminalization of same-sex acts by imprisonment and the death penalty.

"They should reconsider this, have compassion and not pass it," Ssenyojo said. "Instead of enacting laws, legalize love for all."

More than 400 people of faith attended the interfaith pre-conference to AIDS 2012, "Taking Action for Health, Dignity, and Justice," held July 20-21 at Howard University.

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