FIRST-PERSON: HIV/AIDS is ministry imperative

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--When I was about 12 years old, I remember watching a news report with my family about the growing issues related to HIV/AIDS. The news report informed viewers that the need for professionals and volunteers in the HIV/AIDS area would only increase in the decades to come. During a commercial break, I stated proudly that this was EXACTLY the kind of work that I was interested in doing, to my family's chagrin.

"Didn't you hear what the man said? Only people who HAVE to would risk their lives and health to work in such conditions," my uncle stated.

"Yes, I heard him, and that's WHY I want to do this kind of work," I replied.

This conversation became one of many over the years of me stating the kinds of work I was interested in, while hearers, family and otherwise, reminded me of reasons why other choices would be wiser. Twenty years later, my life has taken many directions, working with women in various situations and predicaments being the common denominator. In the last four years, women and children living with the realities of HIV/AIDS became one of them.

First, a few facts:

-- "Today, about one in four Americans living with HIV are women. And African American women are most affected. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women aged 25 to 34" (www.womenshealth.gov/hiv).

-- "Young people in the United States are at a greater risk of getting HIV infection. In 2006, young adults aged 13 to 29 accounted for the largest number of new HIV infections in the United States. According to CDC research on disadvantaged youth, the rate of HIV among young women aged 16 to 21 is 50 percent higher than the rate among young men in that age group. African American women in this study were seven times as likely as white women to be HIV-positive." (www.womenshealth.gov/hiv/women-at-risk/index.cfm).

-- "More than three in four (77%) of adult women (15 years and older) with HIV globally live in Sub-Saharan Africa -- that's an estimated 12 million out of the 15.5 million women infected with HIV worldwide" (http://womenandaids.unaids.org).

-- "When AIDS emerged in the 1980s, it mostly affected men. But today women account for nearly half of all people living with HIV worldwide. Over the past two years, the number of HIV-positive women and girls has increased in every region of the world, with rates rising most rapidly in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 76 percent of the young people (aged 15-24 years) living with HIV are female. Most of the women who suffer from HIV/AIDS are in the prime of their productive lives. Simply being identified as HIV positive may result in discrimination, gender-based violence, unemployment, abandonment or the loss of other human rights and freedoms." (www.unfpa.org/hiv/women.htm).

So, what do all of these statements mean? First, it means that the television reporter from 20 years earlier was correct. Awareness of HIV/AIDS realities, addressing facts of the disease, and understanding related issues are all important facets of this issue. I think it is especially important for Christians to acknowledge the incredible challenge it represents in our worldwide context. I also suggest it is an area of concern in ministry to women today.

My underlying thought through personal and ministry development has been this one: Jesus commanded us to make disciples in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. It seems to me that an implied necessity of this command is acknowledging the needs and concerns of life in all of those places while making disciples.

The example of Jesus calling the first disciples to be fishers of men is related to this idea. Jesus also knew when His followers were hungry and provided them something to eat. Another example, from Acts 17, is when Paul invited his hearers to come to the knowledge of the True God, rather than the Unknown God. He was aware of his listeners' current beliefs and practices and related the Gospel to them.

Today, understanding the real complexities of the world is part of the challenge in making disciples. Specific to women, grasping the challenge and difficulty of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is paramount. Women of the world, inside and outside the United States, face this disease and its complications. Being informed on the issues and being involved in its resolutions, personally and corporately, is vital in ministry today.

Through the years my ideas related to this topic have evolved. When I was young I wanted to jump in and do the obvious thing related to this issue, which to me at 12 years old meant becoming a doctor or a nurse. Eventually, however, my aptitude for science (or lack of it) caught up with me and my passions were re-directed. I also considered law, wanting to defend the rights of the poor and marginalized. Both important ways of being concerned and active in ministry with women today; however, neither was the exact way God was leading me.

I eventually discovered that education and related opportunities for debate and dialogue was the road God led me to follow. Opportunities to inform and engage leaders and thinkers related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and women have been among my most treasured experiences in the past few years. I also volunteer at a local transitional housing facility for people living with HIV/AIDS. I am increasingly convinced of the importance of everyday, common action in ministry.

With respect to women and children suffering with HIV/AIDS, help can take different forms. I have noted a few suggestions compiled from many personal encounters and discussions with friends around the world:

-- Become aware of nonprofit organizations seeking to address these needs globally, including the "Faces of AIDS" campaign produced by the International Mission Board (www.imb.org/aids).

-- Seek opportunities in your community to volunteer your time and your resources in needed ways. Ask for suggestions through your local health department or friends in the health care and social work professions.

-- Identify ways you and your friends can partner together to be more informed on this topic such as book clubs or discussion group forums. Consider publicizing them on social networking sites to reach out in your community.

Recently, I was discussing with friends an idea about ministry for the homeless in my neighborhood. In that discussion, someone mentioned needing to be perfect in our outreach endeavor. Almost involuntarily I spoke up, "It has been my experience that no one expects you to be perfect. They just want you to be willing."

The more I encounter women in various situations, the more open and willing my heart becomes in wanting to understand what life is like for them. I also find that I become more open and willing to share the Gospel, as Jesus is the One and Only hope for salvation and lasting peace. The realities of the HIV/AIDS pandemic are frightening; however, reaching out to women living with this reality is a part of understanding our current international context and vital for responsible ministry today.


Trish Hawley is assistant professor of women's studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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