From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Church's silence on HIV/AIDS spells death, leaders warn

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Tue, 10 Dec 2002 15:11:04 -0600

Dec. 10, 2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn. 

By Melissa Lauber*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - More than 200 people from black United Methodist churches
gathered in the nation's capital to discuss how the church's silence around
HIV/AIDS is killing people.

"If we stay silent, we're killing people. Silence with HIV/AIDS means death,"
said Noemi Fuentes, a staff executive with the United Methodist Board of
Global Ministries. The board, along with the Baltimore-Washington Conference,
sponsored the open discussion on AIDS and the Black Church at the Washington
Plaza Hotel Dec. 6-7.

Keynote speaker Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a former U.S. surgeon general, described
the crisis that the disease has created during the past three decades.

African Americans make up 12 percent of the population in the United States,
but 59 percent of women with AIDS are African American and 65 percent of
teens with AIDS are African American. By 2005, Elders said, 60 percent of all
AIDS cases will be African American.

"And in the church, we're still deciding whether we want to talk about it or
not," said Elders. "The day you see the truth and cease to speak is the day
you begin to die."

Fuentes acknowledged that the Baltimore-Washington Conference is one of the
more outspoken, active annual conferences in the AIDS arena. However, Bishop
Felton Edwin May cautioned against complacency and simple good intentions.

"In the church, we identify, process, debate, codify, print and believe it's
done. We have spoken," Bishop May said. "By the time the ink is dry, we are

He expressed concern that the church is in denial about AIDS and noted that
actions speak louder than words.

"The Word has not value until it is wrapped in flesh and blood," said the
bishop. He encouraged the participants to become "living prayers" in the
battle against AIDS.

Elders also urged the church to act with "mountain-moving faith." She shared
the story of how the United Methodist Church changed her life by giving her a
scholarship that took her from the cotton fields of Arkansas to a college

She served as the nation's surgeon general in the Clinton administration but
had never seen a doctor before she went to college.

"You can't be what you can't see," Elders said. "You're the visionaries of
our society. You've got to be voicing a vision for the poor and powerless."

Elders also took the church to task for allowing the AIDS virus, a medical
condition, to become a sin. She questioned people's uneasiness about
discussing sex in church settings and their unwillingness to advocate the use
of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. 

"I agree condoms will break, but vows of abstinence break far more easily,"
she said.

At a Bible study during the conversation on AIDS, Randy Bailey, a professor
at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, stressed the
importance of allowing honest discussions about sexuality within the church,
especially from the pulpit.

In a lively discussion, Bailey, a Hebrew scholar, showed participants his
interpretation of how the first part of the biblical book of Esther is a
homoerotic story.

"The ways in which we read a text can limit us or free us to become involved
in ministry," said Bailey. By denying or distorting human sexuality, the
church stigmatizes the very people with whom it seeks to be in ministry, he

He shared how he spent time trying to convince his brother, who had AIDS,
that God still loved him when the church indicated otherwise. He also pointed
out God's absence in the book of Esther. "Where is God in all this?" Bailey
asked. "How do we live through situations where it seems God is not

Christians practice an incarnational faith, he said. "We have to demonstrate
God's presence," and find God in the "unacceptable one."

Following the Bible study, a panel discussion on AIDS and a series of
workshops were held, which included opportunities to explore ministering to
the deaf community. 

"That was intentional," Fuentes said, noting that AIDS infections rates in
the deaf community are four times higher than those of the hearing community.

Miscommunication about AIDS is a huge problem, said Harry Woosley, a deaf
activist from Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore. Within
the deaf community, misunderstanding the signs for positive and negative has
spelled the difference between life and death, Woosley said.

People have died and others have delayed medical treatment because they
believed themselves healthy when they saw the sign for positive conveyed to
them in American Sign Language as they were being diagnosed for HIV/AIDS.

In 1989, Woosley discovered he was HIV-positive. "There was no counseling, no
discussion. The doctor told me I was HIV-positive and left the room, left me
alone in the room."

Conditions for deaf people with HIV/AIDS have changed, but not nearly enough,
said Woosley, who is a caseworker for deaf people with the Family Services

Woosley has an act he takes on the road. It's very graphic and includes
teaching deaf participants safe-sex practices.

Everything with deaf people must be visual, he stressed. Deaf people don't
hear about AIDS in movies, on television or radio. Most read at only a
third-grade level, so they tend not to read newspapers, magazines or
closed-captioning on their televisions. "It's person-to-person. That's how
the message about AIDS is spread," Woosley said.

"I don't have time to be embarrassed. I'm not polite," he said. "That's a
waste of time. There's no time for games."

The Rev. Joseph Daniels of Emory United Methodist Church in Washington,
agreed. Local churches can no longer afford to be silent or inactive about
AIDS. "We just need to do it," he said. "We need to open our doors and get to

# # #

*Lauber is associate editor of the UMConnection newspaper in the
Baltimore-Washington Conference.

United Methodist News Service
Photos and stories also available at:

Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home