People fear what they do not understand. When I first moved to Florida in the ’90s, the HIV stigma was still on the rise; it was heavy and strong. I started looking for a church that I could integrate myself into. I desperately wanted to still be included…to be loved.
When I first found out that I had HIV, the feeling that I would never be loved and accepted had me socially and emotionally paralyzed. Reading my Bible daily reminded me that I needed to surround myself with other believers. Joining a church was my utmost priority. I was happy when I finally found a church where I began to feel comfortable and accepted. But even though we were a church that was like a family, I was still afraid to disclose that I was living with HIV. I listened and watched people’s reactions to certain issues. Many of their responses were not positive. I would sit in my prayer closet and think to myself, “Aren’t we to love God and love people? One of the ten commandments literally states ‘Thou shall not judge!’” I felt so much sadness and anger that those who claim to love God could be so unaccepting to the broken! I thought, “How do some of these people think that they can judge and condemn others!” I poured myself out to God and asked for His peace that surpasses all understanding as I walked through these troubled waters.
After being in the church for about ten months, I got the courage to go to my pastor and ask to speak to him. We sat down and had the conversation I had been secretly dreading. During our discussion, I told my pastor that I was living with HIV. He was compassionate and caring. Although my pastor was not very knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS, he told me that he knew someone else who was living with HIV and connected us with each other.
After almost a year passed, I felt led to ask my pastor about starting a support group. I felt strongly that there were other people who were also having the same empty feeling that I felt with this diagnosis. A support system consisting of others who are facing the same feelings and day-to-day issues could build a greater understanding and draw us closer to God. This was strongly on my heart. The pastor agreed and within a week we had a meeting with the Director of the County Health Department. The director was very hesitant. He was afraid someone would shoot me or maybe even burn down our church! I was absolutely floored! I could not believe what I was hearing! Were people really that scared and cold-hearted to those struggling with this?
Hearing that lit a fire inside of me. I became adamant about creating my support group! I felt led by God in this, regardless of the dangerous repercussions that might come with it. After the group began, I realized I needed to change the name, however, because I could not reveal that it would be a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS. I hesitantly changed the name to something that sounded like an exercise class. I realized that not many people would show up for fear of the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. People were literally afraid for their lives! Yes, I said their lives – afraid of being beaten or even killed for having HIV/AIDS! This is what can happen due to a lack of education about this illness! People start to assume and we all know what happens when we assume without the facts. Sadly, I had to close the doors to the support group after just four months.
I am glad I disclosed to my pastor what I was going through back then. I was determined not to let the fear of others stop me from reaching out. I still wanted to support those battling this, and I was determined to educate as many as I could to stop the hate surrounding this stigma. I got involved in other projects surrounding HIV/AIDS and started receiving emotional support at that time. It empowered me to know that I was helping other women and teaching them to embrace and love themselves again. That whole experience made me really realize how badly the world needs to be educated on this illness, including the church. The Bible has many stories of Christ’s love. He never shied away from those with afflictions. He healed the leper, the woman with the issue of blood, and all those with mental, physical, and emotional afflictions. He embraced them in love. If we are to be following His example, we too need to embrace those in all walks of life in love, forgiveness, and mercy.
Believe me when I tell you that in 2021, the sigma is still alive. Our society still needs to learn the facts about HIV/AIDS. As advocates, we must continue to educate the churches. However, we first must continue educating ourselves as advocates on HIV/AIDS. We will always fear what we do not understand. I will leave you with these three final words. Educate! Love! and Empower!