Turning numbers into faces

12/4/2007

Speakers make World AIDS Day event personal

 

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

 

HIV/AIDS is personal, more personal than many Mississippians like to think.

That fact became evident Dec. 1 at the Mississippi Conference’s first World AIDS Day event “8K Every Day, Each Day.”

 

All four presenters shared personal stories of how HIV/AIDS had impacted their lives.

“You have to get past the statistics and get to the fact that this is about people. It’s about all of us,” said the Rev. Shane Stanford, who is HIV positive.

 

Other presenters included Bishop Fritz Mutti of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund; the Rev. Gary Henderson, a Jackson native who leads the United Methodist Global Health Initiative; and Dr. Craig Thompson of the Mississippi Department of Health.

 

About 100 people attended the event held at the Jackson Medical Mall.

 

Mutti shared the story of learning that not one, but two sons were infected with HIV/AIDS and how both died within a year of each other. Henderson talked about a trip to Zimbabwe and meeting children who were heads of households, or about to be, because their parents had died of AIDS or were infected and dying. Thompson revealed that his 11-year-old adopted daughter has HIV.

 

“The personal stories helped us all see the human faces of HIV/AIDS,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward.

 

The Rev. Vicki Sizemore Tandy, superintendent of the Senatobia District and a co-organizer, said she was disappointed more people from the northern part of the state didn’t attend so they could get that message. “People in Mississippi are putting their heads in the sand,” she said. “People are saying it doesn’t apply to them.”

 

As heart-rending as the stories were, each of the presenters praised The United Methodist Church for being active in HIV/AIDS education, even when it wasn’t popular. Mutti said The United Methodist Church was one of the first denominations to publish materials explaining AIDS and how it is spread during the period of panic – the first of his “three Ps” of the AIDS pandemic: panic, personal and promise.

 

The theme “8K Every Day, Each Day” represented the number of people worldwide who die of AIDS-related illness daily. To dramatize that number, 8,000 red Christmas lights were laid out around the Jackson Medical Mall. At the close of the event, participants walked silently along the trail of lights. A fund-raising 8K walk is planned for next spring.

 

All four presenters challenged the Miss-issippi Conference to take advantage of its position to reach out to those affected by HIV/AIDS.

 

“We will try to reach out and keep the promise, to make it known that United Methodists in Mississippi will reach out around the world,” Mutti said.

 

Thompson referred to Mark 1:40-41 where Jesus heals a leper. “If people with HIV/AIDS aren’t the lepers of the 21st century, I don’t know who is,” he said. “The church has a role in HIV/AIDS. You can’t believe how glad I am to see another major denomination step forward to say it will try to do something.”

 

Stanford, who serves as preacher for The United Methodist Hour and as teaching pastor at Hattiesburg Main Street United Methodist Church, called on United Methodists to be the body of Christ for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

 

“We, as the local church, have the opportunity to do something incredible,” Stanford (right) said. “We have the power to do things with this disease and all brokenness that no other group can do.”

 

Stanford encouraged those attending to “be the church” by doing the following:

• C – Care and comfort

• H – Handle testing and counseling

• U – Unleash a volunteer force of compassion

• R – Reaffirm the role and potential of the local church

• C – Champion healthy behavior

• H – Healthy lifestyles

 

The numbers
HIV/AIDS is a world-wide problem, but the disease has hit Africa especially hard. More than 42 million are living with HIV/AIDS, and 74 percent of them are in sub-Sahara Africa. More than 22 million people have died of AIDS worldwide. The United Nations estimates some 14 million children are AIDS orphans and that by 2010 the number could reach 25 million.

 

In the United States, about 1 million people live with HIV with approximately 40,000 new infections each year. By race, 54 percent of the new infections occur in African Americans and 64 percent of new infections in women occur in African-American women.

 

Mississippi has some 3,191 people living with AIDS, according to the Health Department’s Web site. Thompson said the disease is growing most rapidly among African-American men, calling the spread an “eruption.”

 

He said that 25 percent of the state’s cases are in Hinds County and that 40 percent of Mississippi’s AIDS patients live in district five, which includes Claiborne, Copiah, Hinds, Issaquena, Rankin, Madison, Warren, Sharkey, Simpson and Yazoo counties.

 

In her closing remarks, Ward asked Mississippi Conference churches to do three things:

• Ring a bell. Ring it once for each year since the AIDS virus was discovered while people pray for a cure.

• Find a place within the congregation to open a space for conversation. She said many people have stories to tell related to HIV/AIDS but need safe places to share them.

• Start some sort of ministry that directly addresses the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

 

The Rev. Tim Thompson, superintendent of the Meridian District and one of the event organizers, said plans are already underway for 2008.

 

“The next step is to promote three major seminars around the state: north, central and south,” he said, “to raise awareness of AIDS in Mississippi.”

 

Rev. Thompson said the first seminar would likely come sometime after Annual Conference in June. He said the seminars would help prepare the conference to take part in the UM Global Aids Fund, which seeks a $1 donation from each United Methodist.