Ask church members what seminaries do and they’ll likely say, “Train future ministers.” They may add “and educators.” Ask a seminary professor or administrator the same question, and they surely will add, “provide a think tank for theology,” and probably also, “offer ongoing training for church professionals.”
Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary (JCSTS) in Atlanta has showcased its role in all those functions by convening conversations of scholars, church leaders and seminarians on the subject, “Becoming HIV/AIDS competent” churches.
Spurred by a call of the 219th General Assembly (2010), the Atlanta school has introduced a certification program for those who would develop and put into action pastoral care that offers healing and wholeness to people living with the disease.
Last fall, the seminary launched the program by hosting a conference that reflected both the advanced medical expertise available in the city — home to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the serious theological reflection in the only city that’s home to two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries.
JCSTS developed the program to implement the 2010 GA’s report, “Becoming an HIV and AIDS Competent Church: Prophetic Witness and Compassionate Action.” Prepared by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the report outlines the human impacts of HIV and AIDS and calls on churches to become “AIDS competent.” It cites competence benchmarks developed by the World Council of Churches.
Students, faculty and staff from Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), of which JCSTS is a member seminary, drafted possible responses to the GA’s action and to a national HIV/AIDS strategy issued by President Barack Obama. They recognized the disproportionate infection rate for African-Americans, who accounted for two-thirds of all new U.S. diagnoses of HIV in 2009. They also found that no PC(USA)-related faith institution offers training in HIV/AIDS competence. Given JCSTS’s status as the world’s only African American Presbyterian seminary and its multidenominational reach through the ITC, they proposed that the seminary develop a certification program on the subject.
“With monumental scientific advancements in the area of treatment, we find ourselves asking the question: ‘Why are people still contracting a virus that is 100 percent preventable?’” said Ken Lazarus, director of JCSTS’s AIDS Initiative. “There is no clear-cut or simple answer. HIV/AIDS is perpetuated in a complex web of poverty, gender inequality and violence, human rights violations, normalization of casual sexual activity, and the stigma and unjust discrimination meted out to those living with HIV and AIDS.”
What’s needed, he said, is “a strategy no less complex, integrating education, prevention, advocacy and root causes.”
Participants in last fall’s conference see it as a first step.
“The good news is that more people are living with AIDS than ever before,” said G. Guy Pujol Jr., executive director of AIDS Treatment Initiatives and the conference’s keynote speaker. He said a single phrase sums up both the good news and the bad: “more people are living with AIDS than ever before.”
Pujol, whose doctoral dissertation at Columbia Theological Seminary dealt with theological and religious barriers to HIV prevention and care, ticked off the statistical realities: as of 2009, 33.3 million people worldwide were living with HIV, including 1.2 million in the U.S.; 7,000 new HIV cases were diagnosed each day; and 1.8 million people died of AIDS-related causes.
In the U.S., 39 percent of the HIV-infected males are white, 36 percent are black and 22 percent are Hispanic. Of infected females, 59 percent are black, 19 percent are white and 19 percent Hispanic. One of the major places of infection is in U.S. prisons, yet as Pujol pointed out, only two states provide condoms to inmates.
He also reviewed the most recent medical findings, provided an extensive report on new treatments and pointed out that, when followed, the medication regimen often increases both length and quality of life.
Placing the matter in a church context, Pujol said learning the facts about HIV/AIDS is an act of pastoral care that tells those infected, “I care enough about you to learn as much as I can to be as competent as possible to help you.” An informed pastoral caregiver, he said, can ask the right questions — not just “How are you doing?” but “How’s your T-cell count?”
When a woman told a pastor that her T-cell count was up, “the pastor in his ignorance said, ‘That’s great,’” Pujol said. “She didn’t have the emotional strength to continue the conversation, so she faked getting a cellphone call to excuse herself from his presence.”
By holding members accountable, he said, informed pastors can help save lives.
“If I ask them how many medications they have missed,” a major cause of deteriorating health among the HIV-infected population, “they don’t want to tell me anything other than zero.”
Conference participant George Kerr added: “In fact, the viral suppression process is so critical. And the pastors can play a critical role in helping press HIV-positive members to stick to their medication schedule.”
But Pujol found in his research that often pastors’ role has been marked by silence and neglect. He interviewed HIV-positive church members, and separately, their pastors. Virtually all the pastors said they didn’t talk about HIV/AIDS, adding, “This doesn’t affect any of my members.” Virtually all the HIV folks said they didn’t talk about the disease in church either, chiefly because “I don’t know if my church is a safe place to talk about it.”
J. Herbert Nelson II, executive director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness (OPW) in Washington, which co-sponsored the conference, offered reflections on Jesus’ healing of the lepers. He pointed out that the priests of ancient Israel were the gatekeepers for cleanness, so Jesus’ sending of the lepers to the priests to declare them well was an act of incorporation, bringing them back into community.
“Touching the lepers makes Jesus unclean,” reminded Nelson, “but by being willing to taint himself and face the resulting estrangement, Jesus creates the new community.” Accordingly, Nelson urged those expounding on the text to focus on Jesus, not the thankful or thankless lepers. “Jesus is the one who radically recreates the community, making it radically inclusive,” he said.
JCSTS theology professor Margaret Aymer enlarged on this concept of a healing ministry that incorporates restoration: cleansing to those feeling dirty and ashamed, community embrace to the estranged, fullness to those feeling empty.
She outlined factors in the church that pose barriers to HIV prevention and care:
» the visibility factor: we attach meaning to what we see, whereas AIDS is largely invisible.
» the belief factor: fear that treating disease will imply lack of faith in miracle healing.
» the theodicy factor: “God did this. Who am I that I should disrupt God’s plan?”
» the doctrine of sin factor: “This is God’s judgment for being gay/promiscuous. Who am I to disrupt God’s judgment of me/him/her?”
» the neo-Platonic problem: the body doesn’t matter, only the soul does.
» the silence problem: if the illness is not named, we’re free of it: it doesn’t need to be addressed.
Aymer offered some pathways that can facilitate a regeneration of healing ministry:
» a revival of liberation theology, “the churches’ mandate to liberate the oppressed … just like Jesus did.”
» justice: naming the demons, in this case “heteronormativity, homophobia, poverty, sexism, capitalism, health care laws that minimize Medicare support (so much of which supports people suffering from AIDS).”
» pastoral theology: seeing healing as restoring to community.
» embodiment: using Bible stories that unite body, mind and spirit.
» narrative theology: expounding biblical stories that recast the characters in modern categories (e.g., lepers = AIDS sufferers).
Randall C. Bailey, ITC professor of Hebrew Bible and author of a forthcoming book on sex and sexuality in the Bible, said the church has done harm by using some parts of the Bible to approve some sexual expressions and disapprove others while disregarding other parts of Scripture — thereby disqualifying many people from the mercy and healing grace they need.
Leslie Woods, associate for domestic policy and environmental issues at the OPW, called for policy changes in governance.
“You have to deal with the system that is trapping people” in addition to helping individuals deal with their particular daily needs, she said. She itemized an “advocate’s toolbox”: education in your local church; building a relationship with legislators; developing community, ecumenical and interfaith coalitions; engaging the print media; and capitalizing on social media.
Woods said advocacy is required on all HIV/AIDS-related issues. That list, she said, includes universal health care, access to HIV/AIDS and drug treatment, needle exchange, reauthorization of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act (due to expire in 2013) and government funding for HIV/AIDS programs in general, access to treatment and prevention services in correctional facilities, and decriminalization of AIDS (she said 36 states have HIV-specific statutes).
JCSTS preaching professor Mark Lomax personalized the matter by telling about his inner conflict when one of his siblings came out to him as a gay man. Together they had been raised in a “sanctified, holiness church” that taught that sex was limited to the holy union of marriage and only for having children. This same brother “had convinced me to publicly profess my faith in Jesus.”
How does one preach about this when both you the speaker and the listeners feel such conflict? Lomax’s answer: We must think about Jesus in a different way, shedding our obsession over “who’s in and who’s out” and, above all, seeing Jesus as compassionate.
Following the initial conference, JCSTS is publishing online a series of occasional papers, and will present annual conferences both for new participants and past conferees to report on progress made in their respective congregations’ work to become AIDS competent. The third (2014) conference will be the first to present and celebrate the certification of AIDS competent church leaders. In the interim, such leaders will be participating in ongoing course work in biblical and theological foundations, education, pastoral care and preaching.