Since the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, surfaced in the 1970s, AIDS-related illnesses have killed more than 20 million people, mostly in the developing world. The effects of the virus were first noticed in gay men, leading U.S. health officials to speculate that it was contracted through homosexual activity. Many religious leaders proclaimed that AIDS was a divine punishment for a deviant life-style, and they had little sympathy for those infected with HIV. Today there is wider understanding of how the virus is transmitted, and an awareness that people of any sexual orientation, age and gender can become infected. What's more, the greatest predictors of who will die of an AIDS-related illness are poverty and social displacement. But since HIV-AIDS is more common among people with multiple sexual partners, some religious groups still consider it proof of immoral conduct, and those infected with the virus unworthy of help. Nevertheless, churches around the world have been a major source of assistance in this crisis. But, as Shelley Schlender reports, some experts say in order to offer the greatest help to HIV-positive people, they must stop viewing them as "sinners."
At a small Catholic Church in Boulder, Colorado, the choir shapes harmonies of spiritual peace. Churches can also shape how people reach out to others, both locally and around the world. So even though HIV-AIDS is rare in this community, one choir member says their prayers should include those affected by the AIDS pandemic. "It actually hasn't been much of an issue that I have heard, here in church, but perhaps it should be," he says.
South Africa is one of the world's hardest hit nations, with one in every four adults HIV infected. Yet even there, Johannesburg minister Christo Greyling says, churches sometimes look the other way. "The church, both here in Africa and South Africa, as much as you might experience in the United States, was very slow to respond to HIV and AIDS," he says.
The Reverend Greyling is with World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian organization that's active in nearly 100 countries, serving the world's poorest children and families.
He's the group's HIV-AIDS and church-relations advisor for Africa, a life focus that began 17 years ago, when he became HIV positive. "It was a huge shock, and the stigma of HIV was just huge," he says. "And it was really a question of 'God, where are you going with me?'"
Reverend Greyling contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. He says the way he became infected has made many Christians more sympathetic toward him than they are toward other HIV-positive people who may have gotten the virus through unsafe sex, homosexual activity or using dirty needles to inject drugs.
He finds that attitude troubling. "That immediately emphasizes, a kind of, that we want to know, 'Did you get it guilty or not guilty?' And for me, Christ, He lived to forgive each one of us," he says.
Like most church leaders, Rev. Greyling advocates abstaining from sex before marriage and being faithful afterwards, not only because those are standard religious positions but because they are behaviors that can reduce the spread of HIV. To help people adopt these values, he would like to see churches more involved in their communities, supporting programs to fight poverty and help youngsters choose a path that nurtures their safety and well being.
To emphasize the need, he presents the situation faced by a typical 16-year-old South African girl. "Your father has been mostly somewhere in a mine working somewhere, your mother has to be out working to put something in the field, you've got no mentors that guide you, and the church only tells you that you shouldn't become sexually involved. But the peer pressure is huge, and in terms of poverty, you need something to have on the table, and just by having sex with someone, [she thinks] 'I can just get that little bit of love that I got nowhere else.' And, you're so vulnerable, and that's what I think Christians need to understand," he says.
Church doctrine often frowns on the use of any artificial contraceptive, including condoms, but Reverend Greyling says that has to change. He points out that among South African women who are HIV positive, over 60 percent became infected after getting married, because their husband was infected. Condom use would minimize the chance of transmitting the virus, as his own marriage demonstrates. "In our situation, we also had to use condoms all the time in a marriage relationship, and after 15 years of marriage, my wife Liesl is still HIV negative," he says.
His anti-retroviral drugs have also reduced the chance of spreading the disease. Recently, a new regimen and careful medical guidance allowed the minister to safely stop using condoms and father a child. He proudly reports that her name is Anika, she's two months old, and she's HIV-negative. "She's laughing at everything. Ahh, she's beautiful. She looks like her mother," he says.
But he says the majority of South Africans earn less than $1 a day, so few can afford anti-retroviral drugs. "I feel guilty sometimes, if I meet people, like I've met yesterday night, where I speak to a young person and he says, I'm also on [medicine], and he pulls out some multivitamins for a sore throat. And I think, well, this guy's dying and I'm here," he says. "So the full reality is that people need to have access to these medications in reach of what they can afford. And for most people, that's very little."
AIDS activists like Christo Greyling say the world must act now to save millions who are at risk of dying from AIDS-related illness - young adults, laborers, professionals, parents and children.
According to Bruce Wilkinson, senior vice president of World Vision USA, failure to act would cause a humanitarian crisis, leaving behind farms that cannot be tended, children who have no parents, and businesses that fail. "If we miss this generation, I think we will have such a catastrophic case on our hands, it will cost 10 times the amount to help bring stability back to that region that it would currently," he says.
In Africa, hope resides in the $15 billion Global AIDS bill recently signed into law by President Bush, but budgets are tight in the United States, and the money has not yet been appropriated.
Back in Boulder, many choir members of the small Catholic Church are hopeful that Congress will fund the global AIDS package. "It just seems totally unfair to say they'll do it, and get all the glory for it, and then never appropriate the money. It's just kind of evil," says one.
Translating those hopes into action is the next step. Christo Greyling of World Vision says that strong lobbying from churches around the world could make the difference in securing funding for the Global AIDS package.