By the Rev. Donald E. Messer
People frequently ask why World AIDS Day is observed at the beginning of Advent.
"Talking about people suffering from HIV and AIDS seems inappropriate in a season focused on joy," say pastors as they excuse themselves from taking up special offerings to fight AIDS.
When the annual Dec. 1 World AIDS Day was initiated in 1988 by government health officers, most church leaders were more likely expressing condemnation, not compassion, and showing more stigmatization than ministry towards persons infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.
Now, more than 25 years into an escalating global pandemic that has killed 27 million people, infected another 33.2 million, and left 16 million AIDS orphans struggling to survive, Christians are awakening to the crisis and searching for ways to put their faith into action.
Advent proves to be a perfect time to demonstrate that religious belief is not simply liturgy without meaning or ritual without substance. The four Advent Sundays before Christmas signify a season for “waiting” or making oneself ready for the coming birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world.
Reflective of this “waiting,” many churches light a new candle each week, using a few liturgical words. Typically, in successive weeks, candles are lit for hope, love, joy and peace. Instead of offering generalized spiritual pabulum, a focus on global AIDS can infuse special poignancy into the Advent celebration.
Lighting the Advent candle of hope
• When lighting the Advent candle of hope, remember all those people in the world waiting for medical treatment to restore and maintain life. Anti-retroviral drugs are now available that can keep most of the 33.2 million infected people alive and productive, but only 3 million have access. The rest are waiting for someone to care.
Pregnant HIV mothers around the world yearn for two small pills costing less than $5 that will stop the transmission of the virus from mother to child during birth. Thanks to medicine provided to mothers in Africa and Asia through the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, innumerable children have been saved. What a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ, by keeping a newborn baby AIDS-free!
• On the second Sunday, when the Advent candle of love is ignited, remember how most persons infected with HIV say that worse than having the disease is the way people treat you. Imagine being sick while you and your family are being shunned or mistreated.
In Thailand, I saw families discard their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters at a Buddhist AIDS hospice, never returning to see them or even to reclaim their ashes. In India, I often enter women’s AIDS wards and discover women not only dying but also dying alone, because the women are blamed for the disease, even if their husbands have infected them.
Thanks to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, seminars educating against fear, prejudice, stigma and discrimination are being held not only in Asia, but also in Latin America and Africa. At a project designed to combat stigma in Kenya, a farmer living with HIV told me that he had discovered that “Methodism was love in action."
Lighting the candle of joy
• When the candle of joy is lit on the third Sunday, remember the elation and happiness of HIV-positive persons when they encounter compassionate Christians who offer care and assistance. United Methodists working in partnership with other Methodist traditions, ecumenical friends, and non-government organizations are bringing joy to the hearts of people who otherwise would only know sorrow and pain. A Methodist militia of mercy is being mobilized around the world that transcends denominational lines and national boundaries.
In Sierra Leone, Kenya, Mozambique and many other places, AIDS orphans rescued from the streets know the joy of safety, education and food because of help received from donations given to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.
In a crudely built wooden church with dirt floors in Mzuzu, Malawi, I saw 100 AIDS orphans being provided care due to a gift from the fund. I shall never forget the joy in their faces when they received a simple piece of bread with a little squash spread on it.
Malnutrition combined with AIDS continues to keep many HIV positive children from ever getting to blow out their candles on their second birthday, much less light an Advent wreath.
• The illumination of the fourth Advent candle signifying peace provides opportunity to remember the spiritual dimensions of the global AIDS crisis. The good news is that HIV is a preventable disease and people who are educated on how to avoid infection can experience the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they and their loved ones are not in danger.
United Methodists believe in comprehensive evidence-based prevention. A Norwegian United Methodist missionary nurse has toiled faithfully for over 30 years in India. In recent years, she has moved her clinic into the dusty, dirty, hot and humid "dhabas" or truck stops near Agra. There she does AIDS testing and distributes educational materials to thousands of migrant truckers, urging abstinence, faithfulness to partners and proper use of condoms.
Being infected by HIV also provokes deep spiritual questions, like "Does Jesus love even me? Will my church accept me?" In response, Upper Room Ministries, in cooperation with the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund and the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, has created a special devotional booklet. More than one-half million copies of Prayers of Encouragement in 12 languages have been distributed.
Nothing is more profound or comforting than knowing and experiencing the peace of God even when struggling against stigma and the ravages of AIDS. Last Christmas, women in sub-Saharan Africa included a copy of these prayers and scriptural readings in the 5,000 food buckets they prepared for distribution in South Africa and Mozambique.
Symbolizing the birth of Jesus
• Fifth, when the final Christmas candle blazes to symbolize the birth of Jesus, recall how hope can conquer despair and impossible possibilities can become reality. The logo of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund proclaims we are "helping to create an AIDS-free world."
An East German once told me how she had met a "crazy" English woman. Amid the Cold War, a woman outside London declared she would light a candle every night until the Berlin Wall crumbled. "I thought what a waste of time," said the East German, "but two years later the unbelievable happened."
Within two years time, the entire world will not be AIDS-free, but thanks to Advent offerings from United Methodists that support programs of education, prevention, care and treatment, many people around the globe will be thankful that their personal worlds are AIDS-free.
To support the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, give to UMCOR Advance No. 982345. Make checks payable to the United Methodist Committee on Relief and include the Advance number on the check. Checks can be dropped in church collection plates or mailed directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Credit card donations can be made by calling, toll-free, 800-554-8583 or online at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/give/manyways/
Messer is author of “Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence — Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis.” He is also executive director of the Center for Church and Global AIDS and chairperson of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee.