On Religion and AIDS – Speech for the Intersection of Faith & Health Conference 2015

From 1993 – 2004, I directed one of the few faith-based AIDS organizations here in Seattle and that is why Rev. Mary Diggs Hobson asked me to share some observations about religion and AIDS during that time.

I’d like to start by telling you about the founder of Multifaith Works, then called Multifaith AIDS Project of Seattle or MAPS.  The Rev. Gwen Beighle was a Presbyterian minister who turned to that career after raising her family.  She became a hospital chaplain and in the early 1980s observed firsthand how everyone—doctors, nurses, clergy, family—reacted in fear to this unknown, life-threatening virus called HIV.  Think of the hullabaloo made over Ebola in this country over just a few infections and then multiply it by the thousands of people who were dying of AIDS then and you’ll begin to understand the earliest reactions to HIV and AIDS.

But Gwen wasn’t afraid.  She saw it as her Christian responsibility to take up the cause of PLWA (people living with AIDS) and walk with them on their final journeys—because in those days AIDS was a death sentence.  Gathering some friends and acquaintances around her kitchen table, she launched MAPS in 1988 as a multifaith organization because she saw that AIDS was an equal opportunity infecter, meaning that it could infect anyone, not just Christians, and that it was a crisis that demanded a collective religious response, not just a Presbyterian or a Christian one.

Together, they rented and renovated houses to provide low-income temporary housing for PLWA; they counseled and comforted the sick, the dying and their loved ones; they did memorial services; and they went out into the community to challenge churches and synagogues to step up and get involved.

What she encountered—and what I encountered when I took over from her—even in churches into which we had been invited, often ranged from polite indifference to outright hostility.

Most of us know the Biblical story of Job, that righteous man who, with God’s approval, was tested to the limits of human endurance.  Like Job, people living with AIDS have found themselves tested by having everything pulled out from under them, even to the point of death.

As in the story of Job, the initial response of many people was like that of Job’s so-called friends, who “played God” by judging Job for his behavior and urging him to repent for his alleged sins.  For many people, it was more important to preserve a sense of moral order in the world than to accept the randomness of a new and frightening disease.  They refused to see the common humanity in the faces of those whom the disease had touched.

The reception to AIDS crisis in most faith communities was complicated by the issue of how it was transmitted, first among gay men having sex and later via shared needles among drug users.  Neither subject made the faith communities very comfortable, to say the least.  At the time, many faith groups condemned homosexuality as a sin and drug use maybe less so, but it was illegal as well.

I must say that, as a Jew, I was surprised by this reaction because I had assumed Christians would practice the love they preached.  Often I heard the line “hate the sin, love the sinner” but in reality this usually got translated as “hat the sin and hate the sinner too”.  Minority communities, like mine and yours, had additional concerns because we didn’t want to publicly acknowledge our communal shortcomings in front of the majority community.  “Rabbi,” Jewish people would tell me, “homosexuality isn’t an issue in our community and we Jews don’t do drugs.”  Of course not, and there isn’t domestic violence or alcoholism or mental illness or any other negative thing either.  If we close our eyes, we can all pretend to be as perfect as we want to be.  Better not to admit to any problems.  That’s how it was in the Jewish community—and from what friends told me, it wasn’t much different in the African-American community either.

I would note that there are strong differences when it comes to understanding sin.  Christians in general seem to put a lot of weight on traditional sins of a sexual nature, like homosexuality.  This attitude was very hard to overcome because you needed people to get beyond the judging to see the suffering human being standing in front of them.  Other faiths, like Judaism and Islam, are more commandment-based, so the so-called sexual sins are just some the “thou shalt nots” and not their totality.

I remember meeting some young gay men, students from Saudi Arabia, who told me the following:  “We know that when we die we will stand before Allah and be judged.  And although we know we are sinning by being gay, we are otherwise good Muslims.  So we believe that God will judge us better than a heterosexual man who cheats and lies and does not pray much.  It’s just a matter of balance—good deeds versus bad.”

I hope that many traditional Christians might also think this way of being non-judgmental could also work for them.  When we helped Crista Ministries open its own AIDS home, I remember the minister charging the volunteers:  “You are here to listen, not to witness.  If they ask why you do what you are doing, then you can say, but otherwise not.  And above all, do not criticize or condemn.  Leave the judging to God.”

I would only add that it is no sin for us to err on the side of compassion.

Unfortunately, judging is what we people of faith tend to do so well and this judgmental attitude led many PLWA and their supporters to respond in kind, by being faith-phobic to all religions, even towards religious people that wanted to help.  Many men had been rejected by faith and family when they came out as gay men, and were rejected and shunned again when they announced they had AIDS.  They didn’t want to risk more damage to their psyches or souls.  Typical was a man in one of our houses who often wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Jesus: Save me from your followers”.  I think he liked to wear it to try to provoke us.

Even today, although significant portions of the faith communities have been galvanized into action in support of people living with AIDS, judgmental messages are still much in vogue, regardless of how the face of the disease has changed.  Even today, many people prefer to keep their self-righteous moral shields up and refuse to look at the human being across from them who craves a kind word, a sympathetic ear, and a helpful hand.

Nonetheless, progress gradually is being made.  Fear is being replaced by knowledge, and hearts and minds are being changed.  This kind of conference, held at a Catholic university for people primarily from the African-American community would have been unimaginable on both counts twenty years ago.

And at the same time, the face of AIDS has changed.  Today, there are drugs that are prolonging the lives of many people living with AIDS in this country.  Whether they will continue to be as effective over time, no one can say, but in the meantime, these drugs are a reason for celebration because they do extend the lives of those people who can tolerate them.

But even so, we must be mindful of the fact that there are millions more people across the globe who do not have access to even the most minimal medical treatment.  This is the real face of the AIDS pandemic today and there seems precious little we can do about it because it is not just about AIDS, it also involves economics, politics, health care policies, religion, sexual attitudes and more.  AIDS cannot be treated in isolation of other factors because, in many parts of the world, AIDS is subsumed under them.  We need to remind ourselves of their reality.   It is, or should be, part of our mission as well.

AIDS used to be a culture of death.  Today, AIDS is beginning to be a culture of life.  Today, a person with AIDS in North America can look forward to years of life with a variety of chronic conditions.  No one can actually return to life as it once was. But hope is there.  And that is a wonderful thing to behold.

In many ways, people living with AIDS are like Job after his test.  The Bible says that God restored Job to health and granted him all the material things he previously had.  But these surely did not come instantaneously.  It took time to recover his health; it took time to rebuild his fortune, it took time to replace his dead children.  (Just ask Job’s wife!)  Although probably delighted to have a second chance at life, Job must have remained haunted by his terrible test.

And so too, I believe, it is for people living with AIDS.  They have confronted their own mortality head on and now are being given a chance at renewed life.  But the trauma of the encounter must still haunt them.  And we, Job’s erstwhile friends, are also being given a second chance to prove ourselves.  Job’s friends were tested in their faith as much as Job was in his, but unlike Job, God found them wanting.   How will we, Job’s friends, respond now that our “Job” is on the road of restoration?  To help people living with AIDS today is to make a long-term commitment.  It is to help them deal with the issues of the living:  to find meaning and purpose in life; to try to reconnect positively with family, friends and faith; to live lives of peace and productivity.  It is to help them cope, not with imminent death, but with life restored; not a life of complete health, but life nonetheless.  And that is a very great gift indeed.

I’d like to conclude with some comments about the two theological principles upon which Multifaith Works was built.

First, we held that that all religions have equal access to and knowledge of the divine.  I often compare God to a multifaceted gem.  As finite human beings, we can only see one or two facets of this gem.  Our centuries old mistake is to assume that the facets our particular faiths know as God are in fact God, which means that every other faith’s view must be wrong.  Put another way, our ability to know God is like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Each faith knows but one part, yet assumes the whole to be just like the part felt.  But in truth, the divine whole is infinitely more mysterious, more varied and greater than any of its parts.

The second theological principle is that we called upon members of every faith to practice their faith’s version of the Golden Rule, to show how agape or caritas, hesed or karuna—or however we say love in our religion—works.  In my time at Multfaith Works, I saw many people acting on the best impulses of their faiths.  Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, Baha’is, Wiccans, Unitarians—all came together to help people in need of housing, care, and emotional support.  What we truly believed showed itself in what we did.  We had different reasons for helping—for me, it’s the commandment of bikur holim, visiting the sick; for a Christian, it is to act as Jesus would have acted; for a Buddhist, it is acting with compassion towards all creatures; but what counts is that we all acted on the specific teachings and values of our faiths.

We were serving as simple people of faith acting on the best values of our respective faiths—because every religion I know of teaches that we should only be compassionate and caring towards those who are ill and poor and alone.

Working together to help care for people living with AIDS was our meeting ground as people of faith.  And as people of faith, we practiced tolerance, understanding and compassion.  We showed our faiths with a handshake and a hug instead of a harsh word; with a smile of friendship instead of a grimace of disgust; with deeds of loving-kindness rather acts of hate or anger.  We strove to reach out to people living with AIDS and inspire them with a sense of hope and courage.

By bringing together people of diverse faith and ethnic backgrounds to help a group of people in need, Multifaith Works sought to create bonds of relationship where none had existed before. We tried to get people to know one another and hopefully, to share some of the ideals of why they are involved in this work.  In short, we were trying to build a community of compassion by helping people with AIDS.  In my mind’s eye, AIDS was only the beginning.  In my mind’s eye, I could see a multifaith organization that both promoted acceptance of religious diversity in our community and involved many people of faith to assist all kinds of people in need, not just people with AIDS.  Becoming involved in this way would build bonds of connection, of unity, of love, among us and enable us to heal, or repair, our society.  By helping people with AIDS, we would actually be helping ourselves, because by helping them, we would help make our society both more just and more compassionate.

And that, my friends, would be a beautiful and much needed thing.