More Than an Infection

The AIDS crisis has as much to do with poverty and racism.

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Jamal, a gay black man, was diagnosed 10 years ago with HIV. He can’t hold a job, battles drug addiction and suffers from serious depression. He has no car, and public transportation isn’t an option without help. Years of poor health, mental illness, lack of family support and the daily grind of coping with the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS has made his life nearly unbearable. The housing project ministry I run, in collaboration with Hartford and the state of Connecticut, helps him survive. Through this partnership, he receives decent affordable housing, social support services, transportation assistance, subsidized medication along with his disability check and professional support for maintaining a complex prescription plan. In response to the economic downturn, however, the state is currently proposing cuts up to 40 percent for HIV/AIDS. The result will be dire for Jamal.

Jamal’s story is just one of many I deal with every day. As a pastor in an urban setting, HIV/AIDS cases don’t come to me as abstract statistics nor as the stereotypes our culture likes to conjure up—the homeless black girl, the gay Latino man on the down low, the strung-out drug addict.

I refuse to be silent. On this National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I ask that you refuse to be silent as well.

I face people with complex lives and identities, those who don’t have the luxury to “manage their care” because they are overwhelmed by the details of “managing” an unfair health care system.

The people I see are overwhelmed with the details of care: “How will I get to the doctor?” “Who will take care of the children?” “How will I pay for medication?” “How much does my disability check cover?” The list goes on and on. For those on the margins, managing HIV/AIDS takes time, and it takes the help of a very large community.

I tell my congregation that we are judged by our response when resources are scarce, not when they are plentiful. As we face this economic crisis, we find ourselves now in one of those judgment moments. The United States has an impressive health care system for those who can afford it, but it is a health “failing” system for many.

President Barack Obama has endorsed the National AIDS Strategy. Designed to increase access to HIV/AIDS care and reduce racial disparities, this holistic plan will put us on the right track. As a community, it is our responsibility to let the Obama administration and our representatives know that we need them to remain firm in their support of this plan. At the same time, we must speak out against proposed cuts in state funding for HIV/AIDS. I know, for instance, that the 40 percent proposed cut to HIV/AIDS funding in Connecticut will not only be a death knoll for Jamal but will escalate the numbers of people reduced to similar circumstances.

We must remember that the plight of victims of HIV/AIDS is part of a larger story of poverty and racism that extends to women and children. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that “we are woven together into the seamless garment of destiny.” In that spirit, it is time to make the HIV/AIDS epidemic your epidemic, no matter your current health status, income, sexual orientation, gender identity or race.

Bishop John Selders is an ordained minister serving the United Church of Christ, the organizing pastor of Amistad United Church of Christ, Hartford, CT; and Lead Principal for the Human Connection Project. He is a teacher, lecturer, workshop leader, an HIV/AIDS educator and activist.

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