By IRENE MIRANDA, Commentary | Published November 22, 2007
As of Aug. 31, the National Catholic AIDS Network ceased its staffing and office operations. For nearly 20 years, this network helped make spirituality and faith a powerful resource for all of us living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. The network helped the Catholic Church respond with understanding and compassion to the pain and challenge presented by the AIDS pandemic.
In 2003, I was blessed to participate in the National Catholic AIDS Network’s Annual Conference. That year I experienced the gifts of those who raised awareness about the pandemic to the world and the church, which at the beginning of the crisis in the early 1980s seemed slow to respond to members of the body of Christ suffering from HIV and AIDS.
For more than a decade, the pioneers of Catholic AIDS ministry gathered once a year for renewed support, prayer and community. After years of struggle, they received the good news of treatments that were more effective and rapidly available. Now, those who are blessed with healthcare or are economically able to access treatment and medication are living longer. Many are able to talk about HIV disease as a chronic condition which, much like diabetes, can be controlled.
And long-term survivors have become the norm. Most of today’s young people have never seen the “face of AIDS” and the devastation this virus takes on the body in the form of Kaposi’s sarcoma, wasting, or CMV retinitis, to name a few. They have been born into a world where HIV and AIDS have always been a part of their experience, and many falsely conclude that HIV infection is “no big deal.”
The year 2003 was also one of transition for the network. Since then, many of us representing those infected and affected by the “new wave” of HIV infection—communities of color, women, young people and seniors—have been ready to take up the banner of raising awareness, asking for help and building alliances to address the epidemic in the U.S. in its revised form.
However, we could not just “put old wine into new wineskins” by using the prevention messages, strategies and responses that were developed for another, different group of people who had the resources, healthcare access and support systems that are not necessarily available to these newly affected and infected groups.
Many of the new infections are also occurring in the rural areas, which lack medical specialists to treat the HIV disease and do not have pharmacies that routinely stock the necessary medications. Confidentiality issues are problematic, and prevention education is conspicuously absent from schools, churches and youth groups, among others.
Other populations are not necessarily taken into account in “official collected statistics,” and the availability of public funds is very limited, if any funds are available at all because of the disparity in funding formulas. Larger cities in the nation receive the bulk of funding even though current data show that less populated areas of the South have the highest rate of new infections.
Many of the new HIV cases pose new challenges. For example, in poverty-stricken areas of the U.S. and particularly in the South, many people live in conditions similar to those in developing countries. If one thing has been proven true, it is that poverty goes hand in hand with a higher risk of HIV infection because of limited access to quality healthcare and education, among other factors.
We are keenly aware that infectious diseases have no boundaries. Last summer, the public health scare by a person with a highly resistant form of tuberculosis became a fresh reminder of the phrase “if it infects one of us, it affects us all.” However, we are now experiencing “AIDS fatigue” and indifference in the U.S., even though new cases of HIV infection are rising steadily and alarmingly in many communities. This lack of awareness has prompted the closing of some Catholic AIDS ministries under the mistaken notion that AIDS is “under control” in the nation. In fact, there are over a million persons living with HIV or AIDS in the country; at least one in every four persons infected with HIV does not know it. New infections are on the rise, and the new face of AIDS is that of a female of color. Public health experts agree that the tragedy the world has witnessed over the past 26 years is just the tip of the iceberg.
Those of us who have served in AIDS ministry have been given models to draw upon to create new ones that are appropriate for our communities. We remain committed to helping in spreading the Catholic prevention education and awareness information to our youth, laity, departments of religious education, schools, seminarians, clergy and diocesan staff. We must draw on prayers and liturgical opportunities to promote compassion and a Christian response to the pandemic, especially in the U.S.
With the closing of the National Catholic AIDS Network, each Catholic AIDS minister became personally responsible for the outcome of this disease in our community. We are grateful to those who have carried the torch before us and enlightened our Catholic community about the HIV and AIDS crisis. The Catholic Church has led the way in many communities by raising awareness about the sin of stigma and discrimination toward our brothers and sisters living with and affected by HIV and AIDS and by teaching the Gospel-based response of compassion and nonjudgment.
As Catholic AIDS ministers we have accepted the torch into the second wave of the pandemic in the U.S. with firm commitment, renewed understanding and creative collaborative organization to further building up the Kingdom of God.
Irene Miranda is the director of the Office of HIV and AIDS Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. This office is sponsoring the Archdiocesan Prayer Journey for a World Living With AIDS from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2 at parishes around the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
For more information about the events held on these eight days, go to www.archatl.com/events/apj.htm. For more information about the Office of HIV and AIDS Ministry, go to www.atlantaaidsministry.org.