Tomorrow, December 1, is World AIDS Day. Back in September of this year, I visited the National AIDS Memorial Grove for the first time. The Grove is in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, and its mission is to provide a place of remembrance so that the lives of people who died from AIDS are not forgotten by future generations. The Circle of Friends is a space within The Grove in which over 2,500 names are carved in a circle on the ground, under a canopy of redwoods and evergreens, in which the light trickles through and names are illuminated as the sun moves across the sky.
As I walked around the Circle, I read names aloud, saying each one with care, knowing that each is the name of someone who had died of AIDS, or someone who loved someone who died of AIDS and who donated in their honor. I thought about the people living with HIV who have impacted my life, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having known them.
I recalled my days at a social service agency on Chicago’s north side of Chicago where I staffed front desk and was primarily in charge of the needle exchange sign-in sheet. I remembered the clients I befriended there: the smiling faces of Reggie, Mona, Sal, and Juan. Their struggles with substance abuse opened my eyes. I thought about the women who participated in my graduate school research study, and how they shared intimate details of their lives with me and helped me to understand stigma, shame, and structural violence from the perspective of Catholic women living with HIV. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for Sue, Carmen, Grace, Diva, Cheryl, Crystal, Lettie, and Keesha.
I remembered my experience working at a diocesan ministry with lesbian and gay Catholics in Los Angeles. Gay men stopped by our booth at the Pride parade that summer, asking questions about whether church teaching on gay marriage could ever change. I thought about the undergraduate students I currently teach and the questions and concerns they bring to our classroom discussions about sexual health, shame, and spirituality.
I read the names carved in stone and wondered what their lives were like, how they lived, how they loved, how they died, who they left behind. And I wept. I grieved for the LGBTQ teenagers left to fend for themselves when unsupportive parents kick them out of the house. I grieved for persons living with HIV who can’t afford the medications that will keep them alive. I grieved for the AIDS-affected Catholics who long ago left our church when they didn’t find the communities and liturgies to be spaces of inclusive love and justice.
The theme this year’s World AIDS Day is “Communities Make the Difference.” According to UNAIDS, this theme invites us to “recognize the essential role that communities have played and continue to play in the AIDS response at the international, national, and local levels.” Their report highlights the need for meaningful partnerships with communities, and it commits to ensuring that at least 30% of all service delivery is community-led by 2030.
This focus on community aligns with the principles and methods of Catholic social teachings. A Catholic understanding of the human person asserts that we are social creatures by nature and that we can only thrive in communities. Catholic social teachings offer principles of human dignity, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, participation, preferential option for the poor, and others; these principles do not present easy answers to complex social problems but they do emphasize what must be key priorities in any authentically Christian response to social problems.
When we think about the Catholic Church’s response to the HIV epidemic, what difference has the Catholic Church made? I cannot answer this question satisfactorily in a short blog post, of course. The Catholic Church has been a tremendous force for good in the work of Catholic health care organizations, non-governmental organizations, social service agencies, educational institutions, and direct service to marginalized communities. The work of Caritas Internationalis, Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, and women’s religious organizations deserve special mention.
But it is also true that some Catholic leaders have been reluctant to advocate for methods of HIV prevention that have proven effective (including condoms and PrEP therapy), fearing scandal. Similarly, church teaching opposing same-sex genital activity and contraception has often been a stumbling block for authentic engagement with the LBGTQ community on stigma-reduction, sexual health, and human dignity in a time of AIDS. In a podcast entitled “Plague” that launches tomorrow, journalist Michael O’Loughlin investigates the early stories of the AIDS epidemic and the Catholic Church’s response, drawing on hundreds of interviews of people who lived through the emergence of the epidemic in the early 1980’s.
The story of HIV/AIDS is not over yet. Our faith community can still make a difference for people living with HIV. What kind of difference will we make?
—Emily Reimer-Barry, University of San Diego, November 30, 2019
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