Testing for HIV/AIDS During Advent

(Photo: Adenike Ashogbon)

When HIV/AIDS was killing off thousands of gay men, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) became the church every person could turn to when struck by this disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

As a lesbian woman, I was one of the many who took care of our brothers. We ran HIV/AIDS programs that provided services, and we advocated for policies and medical treatments. We ACTED UP, we stepped up, and we lifted up everyone in prayer. We consecrated the deaths of tens of thousands of men and women in MCC churches across the country -- many of them abandoned by their families of origin.

With these honored dead in mind, I was tested for HIV/AIDS this year. As a long-married lesbian and the head of MCC's global network of churches, I face little risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. Regardless, I was tested. Why? Getting tested counts. For people who get tested even once, it increases awareness and lowers the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors. It is time to stop HIV/AIDS.

Rock star Bono founded a group called ONE, which fights HIV/AIDS and poverty. ONE leaders see hope in the fact that life-saving drugs are reaching almost ten million people today -- 33 times the number receiving medication 10 years ago. Still, some 18 million who are eligible for treatments do not receive anti-viral drugs at all due to fear, poverty, homophobia, and limited access.

On the bright side, in some populations the incidence of HIV/AIDS contraction is going down. UNAIDS reports that new HIV infections declined by 33 percent since 2001. In 26 low- and middle-income countries, rates declined by 50 percent or more.

Despite this, there is a resurgence of HIV/AIDS in younger U.S. men. Most younger men who have sex with men (MSM) did not witness the apocalyptic wave of deaths in our community. They trust their partners to tell them if they are HIV positive -- and trust that they actually know their own status. Some have sex without a condom since they feel like they are going to get the virus sooner or later -- and why not sooner .

Today, more than 1.1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and more than 33 million people are living with HIV/AIDS around the world. In the U.S., where testing and treatment is readily available, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that nearly 1 in 5 people with HIV don't know they are infected and can pass the virus on to others without knowing it.

There is no cure -- and people die from a disease that we now know can be prevented.

Another surge in infection rates are among children in Sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS deaths among youth aged 10 to 19 increased by 50 percent between 2005 and 2012.

In the face of these surges, we cannot be silent. World AIDS Day, at the beginning of every December, is a reminder for Christians across the world who mark this same time as Advent -- when we await a child who will save us. This year, and every year, we must be the people of faith who save the children all across the world.

MCC members are not passive in this struggle. We have a legacy of standing up against this disease, and we know that in the fight against HIV/AIDS, prevention is one of the most important tools in the work of getting to zero. The Getting to Zero Campaign means zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero deaths from HIV and AIDS.

We remember those who died -- many of whom only have us to remember them. We pray for and expect the end of AIDS, the last infection, the last death -- we must trust and believe with all our hearts that these events are nearer than they once were. And, as Christians, the book of James in the Bible tells us that "faith without works is dead."

So, I say, love yourself and get tested. Love those around you. Love those who you love by getting tested. Regardless of your orientation or sexual activity, have the courage to be tested for HIV/AIDS. Honor those who have died; honor your friends and family. Do it as an act of courage and as a witness.

MCC leaders and pastors are getting tested -- regardless of our risks -- as our witness to the importance of this tool for HIV/AIDS prevention. As we mark another World AIDS Day, we are part of the solution of "Getting to Zero."

We are asked, on World AIDS Day and every day, to get tested, to open our churches as testing places, to be part of the global solution to "get to zero" HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths. We are asked to be in solidarity with those affected and infected with HIV/AIDS, to not fall asleep or be lulled by thoughts that the pandemic is over, just because we have stopped paying attention.

Wake up! It is not over. We must be awake, available, vulnerable and willing. We must get tested. We must write poems, songs, plays -- to paint a future of love and justice for all Creation. We must live our calling, every day, as our gift from a good God who is, after all, "Emmanuel, God with us." Whether we live in apocalyptic or just plain challenging times, we are called.

If you are located in the U.S., you can find testing places near you by going to HIVtest.org.