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Caring in the Age of AIDS

James A. Cress

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My friend and colleague, Eldon E. Carman, who directed the Adventist dental mission program for many years, recently discussed his postretirement ministry of counseling HIV-positive individuals.

Comparing HIV and its resulting AIDS pandemic to leprosy of biblical days, Carman shared his reasons for volunteering 20 hours per week counseling those who seek anonymous testing and who must then wait three weeks to determine whether they face a potential death sentence. "While traveling the world to establish dental clinics, I observed the devastating results of HIV. After my wife's death, I wanted to serve others. If I can help one individual, practically and spiritually, then my efforts will be worthwhile." Carman's work includes specific insights and actions that help churches to minister more effectively in the age of AIDS:

AIDS is not just a homosexual disease. Although the AIDS epidemic in North America spread first and most rapidly among male homosexuals, today the HIV situation mirrors the rest of the world and affects heterosexuals more significantly than we imagine. By the year 2000, more women than men are expected to be infected with HIV. Few congregations and virtually no extended families will remain without having a member infected with HIV.

Knowledge of risk does not prevent the consequences of foolish behavior. Many individuals who come to the dental clinics for HIV testing report that their contact was from a casual sexual encounter, often with their judgment impaired by alcohol. Now they want to protect their spouse or potential partner from the consequences they fear they have brought upon themselves. Grief and embarrassment at their own foolishness are typical expressions of many heterosexuals. Denial and hopeless fatalism are the reaction of many homosexuals.

Innocent people can be infected with HlV by their irresponsible partners. Today there is little chance of being infected from blood transfusions in North America because of an aggressive campaign to protect the blood supply. But children born to drug users are at great risk, as is anyone who shares an injection needle.

Regardless of how they became infected, individuals with HIV need kindness and empathy. Jesus reached out to those of His day who were infected with leprosy. His followers express His ministry by serving those who suffer this plague. The church must talk about how to prevent HIV and how to minister to those infected. Not everyone with HIV will develop AIDS, but every individual with AIDS has previously contracted the HIV virus. Adults would be amazed at the ignorance of young people about basic facts of anatomy, bodily functions, and sexuality. The church should help parents find ways to teach their youngsters how to live chaste, informed, and responsible lives in a world saturated with temptation and opportunities for immorality.

Love, acceptance, and forgiveness must be communicated. Jesus is just as willing to forgive the sin of judgmentalism as He is the sins of sexual promiscuity. If the church will do Christ's will, it must love the sinner though despising the sin. The church must provide a safe haven for those who have fallen victim to Satan's temptations and who desire a place to begin again. The followers of Jesus can be supportive of people with problems without condoning their actions. We must communicate the inseparable principles of Jesus that sinners are welcome here and to go and sin no more!

If the church fails to minister, who will communicate God's plan for restoration? Christians have historically provided leadership in health care and education. No less today, the community needs to know that believers are interested in every disease that sin inflicts and that Jesus is the true Balm of Gilead to heal sin-sick souls. One Adventist church participated in a community health fair by distributing HIV prevention pamphlets and drug prevention information.

Support groups offer opportunities to serve. Congregations can host recovery groups, education forums, blood drives, parenting classes, and other community services. Individual members can volunteer in schools, counseling centers, crisis lines, and hospices. AIDS patients are often isolated and lonely. They need food preparation and delivery, assistance with errands, transportation, and simple friendship. Simple actions will communicate Jesus' love. None should wonder whether the church cares about the wider community. The community will readily refer seekers to a church that expresses caring nurture for those in trauma.

Support can be extended to the families of those affected by AIDS. Many are fearful of what has attacked their own reputation or standing in society as a result of a relative with HIV. Compassionate expressions of understanding friendship may help a frightened fellow member face the uncertain tomorrows for a family member they love. Offering a word of encouragement or sharing a prayer of support is real ministry.

Above all else, it is our privilege to offer hope! Hope for release from sin and abundant life now, and hope for restoration and eternal life at Jesus' return. Blessed hope! Blessed assurance! When the church communicates this hope, it is Christ's body at its best!

-- James A. Cress is the secretary of the Ministerial Association at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Springs, Maryland

This article was published in the November 1996 issue of Ministry magazine,
the international journal of the Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial Association,
published by the Review & Herald Publishing Association at 55 W Oak Ridge Drive, Hagerstown MD 21740.

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