A Call To Spiritual Arms: The Faith Community's Global Response to AIDS

In my work as founder and director of The Balm In Gilead I have been honored and humbled to walk among holy men and women from diverse backgrounds and faiths throughout our world. Regardless of their geographical location or if they are Christians, Muslims, Jews or members of other great spiritual paths, I have found that they all have a few things in common: They believe in a God who loves unconditionally, a God who forgives sin and a God who heals the sick, regardless of the origin of the disease. They all believe in the power of prayer.

Unfortunately, there is a colorful, dark side that continues to be at war within the hearts and minds of many believers. Too often our faith leaders ignore their fundamental belief in a God that loves, forgives and heals when it comes to those affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The faith communities' response to the AIDS epidemic overall has unveiled a deep, dark evil that exists within the spiritual society of holiness.

Still there are many spiritual leaders of diverse faiths who are standing tall on this World AIDS Day and declaring God's unconditional love for all people, including those living with HIV, who might be gay, straight, addicted, obese, sex workers, transgender or diabetic. Christian and Muslim leaders are working together, defying those who hate unity or peace, to educate their communities about HIV prevention. They are speaking out on behalf of abstinence, condom use, needle exchange and HIV testing. These spiritual leaders have decided that God's unconditional love mandates them to save a life and then a soul.

Leaders and members of faith communities who have freed themselves from the dark side of holy actions of hate, must now rise up as public health advocates. These courageous holy men and women must shout from their holy places that the world is experiencing a public health crisis. AIDS is not the devil. It is a disease that is caused by a virus. The virus is not deterred or killed by one's belief in God or the number of times one makes prayers per day. HIV can be stopped by the implementation of proven public health prevention strategies and the daily actions of unconditional love and service. Faith leaders and members must work with local governments, public health departments and ministries of health to ensure that the spread of HIV is stopped in their local communities and in the world. This is an on-going process and requires daily focus.

The role of faith communities is critical to conquering the global AIDS pandemic. Stigma and discrimination remain the leading causes of death worldwide among people affected by HIV, and by those who are afraid to take the HIV test because someone might find out their truth. Stigma and discrimination can and must be dismantled by the believing members of our society.

Today, more than 33.4 million members of planet earth are living with HIV, many of them are believers who are afraid of a God they believe loves unconditionally but hates them for contracting HIV. Self-hatred and pity often propel the spread of the virus to others. Faith communities must speak out against HIV stigma and discrimination. More importantly, the actions of faith communities must exemplify inclusiveness, service and love for all people living with all diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

On this World AIDS Day 2010, there is still no cure for AIDS. Prevention is still our best bet for saving lives. The majority of people living on our planet belong to a faith community and look up to their leaders for daily guidance and direction. Women and girls are the fastest growing segment of those contracting and living with HIV worldwide. Women and girls, often times, make up the majority of persons in our temples of faith where the leadership is still male-dominated. AIDS prevention is everybody's responsibility. AIDS prevention includes more than encouraging the use of a condom among all sexually active individuals. For the faith community, it must include incorporating AIDS prevention in ceremonial preparedness, such as weddings, rites of passages, baptism, bar mitzvah, etc.; it must include openly discussing sexual abuse of women, men, boys and girls of all ages and the prevention there of. The unconditional love of God includes homosexuals. The lingering myth that homosexuality causes AIDS continues to mislead and misguide people to their death or destruction. Loyal believers in a God that is described as both omni-spirit and truth must become leaders of every effort to unite all people -- to educate the young and old, the gay and the straight, the addicted and the sober about the facts and methods of HIV prevention. All methods.

World AIDS Day is the official launch of The Balm In Gilead's mobilization efforts for the 2011 National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, March 6-12, 2011. Now in its 21st year, The Balm In Gilead's Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS calls upon all faiths to join in prayer and education for the healing of AIDS. The silence of life's realities is as harmful as the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Conquering AIDS globally will begin and end with the faith communities' worldwide commitment to provide prayer, truth, prevention, service and care to all people.

The guiding principles of The Balm In Gilead, Inc. provide the daily focus of our work. They include: Belief that all people facing HIV/AIDS are welcome at the table of grace by the unconditional love of God and that their voices must be heard and respected, and belief that faith leaders are a powerful voice for change and must be intentionally at the forefront of addressing the health challenges of the people they serve.

To all faith leaders and members around the world who join The Balm In Gilead in prayer, education and service for the healing of AIDS, I thank you on behalf of the millions of people to whom you provide service and care everyday. You are God's unconditional love!

The mission of The Balm In Gilead, Inc. is to prevent diseases and to improve the health status of people of the African Diaspora by providing support to faith institutions in areas of program design, implementation and evaluation which strengthens their capacity to deliver programs and services that contribute to the elimination of health disparities. The Balm In Gilead offices are located in Richmond, Va., and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.