A world conference on AIDS begins this Sunday in Toronto and it brings together more than 20,000 researchers, advocates, and community leaders. A key resource in the battle with this scourge can be religious groups – if they are more open to the task.
Many Christian churches are already hard at work around the world and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, still the most deeply affected region. Nearly 9 out 10 children diagnosed with HIV/AIDS live there, including 8 out of every 10 AIDS orphans.
"Churches' long reach, deep into people's psyche and far down pot-holed tracks into even the most remote villages, means they are uniquely placed to respond to people's needs," states a new report, "Faith Untapped," from Tearfund, a Christian aid agency based in Britain. "Their reach extends far beyond that of governments and NGOs."
Help can come in many forms and in ways each denomination or congregation is led. Some churches care for AIDS orphans or children of those who are debilitated. Some lobby governments and international agencies on behalf of the worst-hit communities. All can pray for healing – for physical healing, for spiritual enlightenment, and for the healing of prejudices and misconceptions about AIDS. Healing can start by not seeing someone's sickness as godly punishment but by affirming a divine love for that person.
Much work is needed to sweep away misconceptions. Families may blame or even abandon afflicted members, and those with HIV/AIDS can be shunned at businesses, on the streets, or, unfortunately, even at their church.
HIV/AIDS in Africa is spread mostly through heterosexual relations, and most of the victims are women. Wives who contract AIDS from unfaithful husbands, and their unborn children, are among the most tragic victims. Folk beliefs advising men that they can be cured of AIDS through sex with a virgin compound the problem and need correction.
In Mozambique, a church-led effort called Kubatsirana ("helping one another") has provided home care for the sick and prevention programs. The Balm in Gilead, a US-based coalition of 12,000 African-American church congregations, trains members in several African countries to design successful AIDS education programs.
Nearly everyone in sub-Saharan Africa considers themselves either a Christian or Muslim. That means that when a Christian pastor or a Muslim imam speaks, an African man will listen, points out one Balm in Gilead official. Reinforcing marital fidelity can do much to combat AIDS.
Whether to advocate condom use has become an issue for some churches. Those who find this unacceptable have the option of leaving that message to government or others while they contribute in other valuable ways. Religious groups who accept government or other outside funding need to be especially mindful that in such circumstances their mission is healing, not proselytizing.
"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole," says the old African-American spiritual, echoing the biblical phrase. People of faith recognize this. Religions around the world have unique spiritual and temporal resources to offer in helping to heal the AIDS crisis.