Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Persons With AIDS Have A Place At Our Table

By BRENDA TIRADO-TORRES, Commentary | Published November 27, 2008

On Dec. 1, the world will mark the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day, when individuals and organizations come together to bring attention to the AIDS pandemic.

AIDS has been ravaging the world since the early 1980s.

During the disease’s first decade and a half, much attention was paid to the epidemic in the United States. Those fortunate to have access to treatment and medication have been able to live long enough to see AIDS become a chronic illness rather than a fatal disease. On the other hand, many people without access to healthcare have seen their chances of survival jeopardized.

African-American men and women, for example, are estimated to have an incidence rate seven times greater than the rate among whites. In the state of Georgia, an estimated 70 percent of all persons living with HIV or AIDS are black. Rates of HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) among blacks in several areas of the U.S., including the Deep South, approach those in countries of Africa. According to the Black AIDS Institute, the rate of HIV and AIDS among African-Americans is higher than in several countries that receive funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

While supporting AIDS initiatives in other parts of the world is necessary, AIDS in the United States has been neglected for too long, and the mistaken belief that the national epidemic has been “under control” has only fostered a false sense of complacency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that over a million persons are living with HIV or AIDS in this country; more than 20 percent of them are not aware that they are infected with HIV.

Since the 1980s, the Vatican and many of our church leaders have addressed our responsibility as followers of Christ to embrace all persons living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. They have insisted on the need for a compassionate and merciful response, warning us about the sins of stigma and discrimination against those who suffer as a consequence of this disease.

Since the release of “The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response” in November 1987, and the pastoral letter “Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis” two years later, cardinals, bishops and state Catholic conferences have released their own declarations, all calling for Catholic-based prevention education and a Christ-like response to all impacted by the disease. The reasoning is simple: we all are members of the one Body of Christ.

Because the mere mention of AIDS makes people uncomfortable, AIDS ministry finds much resistance from people in the church, at all levels. Some have openly expressed that the church has no business dealing with people affected by this disease. Others make a subtle effort to disguise their discomfort by questioning the need for AIDS ministry when “there is no cancer, diabetes, or heart disease ministry.” But let’s ask ourselves how often do we hear someone asking for prayers for a loved one who has HIV or AIDS, or how often do we hear a homily about the Christian response to AIDS, or how frequently do you see the words “those with HIV or AIDS” listed under the “Pray for the Sick” section in your parish bulletin. As much as people may want to believe that their communities have not been touched by AIDS, here’s the news: there is no country, no state, no city, no town, no parish that has been untouched by this disease. To avoid addressing the issue is to encourage stigma and discrimination.

Our church has a place at the table for us all.

On the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Gospel reminded us that we cannot ignore our Christian responsibility to care for the needy, the outcast, the sick, all of these now embodied in our sisters and brothers living with HIV and AIDS. The words of Christ, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me,” resonate today as powerfully as they did 2,000 years ago.

Brenda Tirado-Torres is the outreach coordinator in the archdiocesan Office of HIV and AIDS Ministry. This office is subsidized by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.