The following is an excerpt from a talk given by UMCOR head, Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, during a World AIDS Day commemoration at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas.
I wound my way around Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. I found myself in a corner room of the hospital reserved for needy patients. The room was bare, sterile, and cold. In the bed was a withered young man, who appeared so small and frail. It was my friend Steve—alone, dying of AIDS.
We talked for several hours. He gasped for every other breath, but there was so much he wanted to tell. I reached across the bed and took his hand. He pulled back. It startled me. “Are you sure you want to touch me?” he said. “Most people don’t want to even get close to me, much less touch me.”
I didn’t say a word; I just took his hand again as he continued to tell me the stories of his life. It was a sacramental moment for both of us, as we made eye contact, and he smiled…. Steve died a few days later.
Friends, there are millions of Steves in our world. And they need a hand to hold, a heart that cares. If we, the church, are not going to respond, then who will?
For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick, and you took care of me; I was in prison, and you visited me….
The Center for Disease Control estimates that about 1.2 million people currently live with HIV/AIDS in the US; 240,000 of them do not even know they are infected! Roughly 50,000 people are diagnosed each year in the US.
In 2009, African Americans continued to experience the most severe burden of HIV, accounting for 44 percent of the new HIV diagnoses. According to the CDC, at some point in life, one of 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV, as will one in 32 black women.
These are startling statistics, friends, and, frankly, overwhelming, but when we put a human face on those numbers, the story becomes even more real. We are compelled to respond with a great sense of urgency.
The numbers on the global stage are equally startling: 34 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS; 2.7 million people were infected for the first time last year. Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS-related causes.
Around 68 percent of all people living with HIV in 2010 resided in sub-Saharan Africa; about 70 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010 were in sub-Saharan Africa.
As of 2009, it was estimated that more than 16.5 million children were orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. I remember visiting Zimbabwe in 2008 and meeting an alarming number of children raising children because their parents had both died of complications of HIV/AIDS. I remember Patience, whose mother died just days after we interviewed her.
But there is a bit of good news—while not acceptable, last year, 15 percent fewer people were infected for the first time compared to 2001. That is 21 percent fewer than in 1997, the peak of the pandemic; 1.8 million people died from the disease in 2010, down from a peak of 2.2 million in the 2000s.
So there is progress, albeit slow.
Whether in the US or abroad, HIV/AIDS remains an issue that reaches beyond infection and being sick to intersecting with complex issues of poverty, gender equality, prevention, education, and sexuality.
When we are brave enough to call our church to action—to show compassion to persons stigmatized and living with the disease; when we invest our gifts and resources in a real way to stop the spread of this dreaded disease that debilitates families and entire communities and leaves the poor and weak even more vulnerable; when we dispel misunderstanding and when we demand on behalf of the millions of silenced voices that it is no longer acceptable for those with AIDS to die alienated and ashamed—only then do we stand for change and have a chance to destroy HIV/AIDS.
As I have said, there is some positive news and hope, which we lift up to celebrate this day.
The annual number of new HIV infections has steadily declined each year since 1990, primarily due to an increase in [the number of] people receiving anti-retroviral therapy. Significant education and awareness efforts have also positively impacted the efforts to slow the HIV/AIDS infection rate.
Another mark of hope for us as a denomination has been the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has the privilege to take part in the denomination’s effort to combat this disease of poverty.
The Global AIDS Fund has received more than $3.4 million in gifts from around the world. Because of the extravagant generosity of congregations, we have distributed $2.3 million in grants to 213 projects in 36 countries.
Globally, UMGAF-funded programs range from educational seminars for pastors in India, to purchasing diagnostic tests and training AIDS counselors in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of UMGAF funds distributed internationally go to Africa, where the disease burden is the heaviest.
A highlight of the domestic focus included co-sponsorship earlier this year of the first HIV/AIDS summit for African American women held in Columbia, South Carolina, a region with some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates among African Americans in the US.
As much as we are doing—it is not enough. Too many continue to be infected with the disease. Too many do not have access to the life-saving drugs that can provide a more abundant life, even when infected; too many infants are born with AIDS even when prophylaxes to inhibit mother-to-child transmission exist; and as United Methodists, we should be aware that there are some do not see the church as a place for love and care.
For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick, and you took care of me….