Prophetic voices move mountains. I could rattle off great movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, and you would shake your head in agreement with me to the prophetic nature of their work. These leaders used both their positioning and voices to awaken large groups of people and move the masses to action — restorative, justice-oriented action.
Many believers would say that these people were divinely positioned for this work. The divine positioning of prophetic voices for one such cause — HIV/AIDS — happened in the early 2000s. Bono, the lead singer of U2, assisted in driving a movement of both evangelical leaders and politicians to see the needs of those infected with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. Well known evangelical voices with varying views on politics, doctrine, and theology came together to respond to the need for medication and care. President George W. Bush created PEPFAR (U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) to assist in bringing medication and treatment to millions of people throughout the world. It was an exciting time for those of us who had been working in Africa, because medication at that time had not been available — and we were seeing death daily. With PEPFAR and prophetic voices, there was hope. There was a future…for Africa.
But where were the well-known evangelical, prophetic voices from the faith community speaking up for people here in the U.S.? This is a question I have asked myself time and time again. Why weren’t these same leaders willing to embrace and be a part of restoring and caring for all people here in the United States in the early 2000s? Have we forgotten that this is a virus that only requires you to be human (human immunodeficiency virus)?
In the United States, 1.2 million Americans are currently living with HIV—and 1 in 8 of them don’t know it. Many struggle to remain in care and on their medications. Although the annual number of new diagnoses have declined 19 percent between 2005 and 2014, there are still certain groups of people that are disproportionately affected, including black gay and bisexual men. Furthermore, African Americans continue to experience the greatest burden of this virus.
I can hear some of my readers now taking aim at “those gay men who are reaping what they have sown.” I hear this too frequently. Saying “this is a gay disease” is an inaccurate and incomplete picture.
In high-poverty areas, 2.1 percent of that population is infected with HIV. That figure is more than double the 1 percent considered the threshold for a generalized epidemic. Poverty, education, employment, healthcare access, and homelessness — all of these disparities track with HIV.
For our HIV-positive brothers and sisters who work hourly jobs and have to choose between working a few hours in order to feed a family or taking time off to get medication or see doctors, there really isn’t much of a choice. Furthermore, when they face additional stigma for their HIV status or are viewed as “sinners” who “reap what they sow,” we distort the gospel message of restoration to all people created in God’s image and forget that we all have something to offer.
So I ask, where is the church in the U.S. on this monumental issue? Here in Baltimore, where 1 out of 41 people are HIV-positive, the church is alive and well serving as a prophetic voice across the city. In 2007, two churches came together to awaken, equip, and engage the BIG “C” Church to serve HIV-positive brothers, sisters, and friends by partnering with local HIV clinics and providing programming and volunteers to address some needs. These founding churches called the organization HopeSprings. Ten years later, congregants from more than 120 churches have served more than 10,000 people through the work of HopeSprings.
We awaken and equip the church by providing training to churches about HIV, holistic ministry, stigma and discrimination, cultural humility, and how to love the LGBTQ community well. We do this with churches from varying views on politics, doctrine, and theology. We then engage the Church by providing financial literacy classes through our Spring Forward Curriculum; transportation to appointments utilizing church vans, Uber, and volunteers; meals made by youth groups; and utilize pre-existing ministries to provide tangible goods such as furniture and clothing. Through our partnership with The Open Table, a poverty transformation model, small groups of volunteers are making year-long commitments to act — through relationship — as a team of encouragers and advocates that sets goals, fosters accountability, and implements plans to create change for our HIV-positive and highly at-risk friends.
About two years ago, we were funded by the Baltimore City Health Department through the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to increase our capacity to offer this program, particularly to serve our black gay and transgendered friends who are in desperate need of relationship. This work is the power of the local church, acting as a prophetic voice and restoring people into community. This fall, we will be launching outside of Baltimore, providing our replicable training and programming nationwide. Indeed, these are exciting times.
I recently read Luke 14:15-23, a parable that Jesus tells of a man preparing a great banquet. This man invites many guests. When his servant goes to tell these guests that the meal is ready, they make the lamest excuses possible for not coming. “I bought some farm animals I want to try out.” “I bought a field. I want to see it.” The list goes on. When the servant reports back to the master, the master gets angry and tells the servant to “bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.” After the second group is brought in, there is still room. Then he is told to go out to country lanes and the roads and to compel people to come in. All are welcome to the great feast.
If the prophetic voices of yesterday or today are too busy to respond locally to our HIV-positive brothers and sisters, or if the prophetic voices of yesterday and today see this as only a gay disease and think Africa is a “safer” place to respond, then we need new prophetic voices.
Church — the time is here, the time is now. We are a divinely-placed people who must view ALL of God’s children as image bearers in need of restoration. When we focus only on how people acquired HIV or who is safe to serve, we miss God’s greater call for us. We give lame excuses. And God will use and call others, and you will miss a great party.
How is God calling you to use your voice? Have we moved on to the next great social justice issue? HIV is still here, and you are still needed.