Faith and HIV – Awareness, Advocacy and Action

I was speaking with Jesse Milan, AIDS United’s president and CEO, recently about the role of faith communities in addressing the HIV epidemic. He stressed the importance of awareness, both awareness about the state of the epidemic and even awareness about the basic facts about HIV prevention and treatment.

There is a widespread sense of complacency about HIV. After all, we have the medical tools we need: treatment protocols that enable people living with HIV to have long productive lives; a variety of prevention methods, including PrEP, which are very effective.

But the reality is that we are not on track to reach the global epidemiological goals set by UNAIDS for this year, and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to push us further behind. It is still possible to reach the goal of ending HIV as a public health threat by 2030, but it will take renewed commitment and political will to get there.

That’s where people of faith come in.

We must be at the forefront about raising awareness. Our sacred values, shared by all major religious traditions, include a commitment to relieve human suffering, including the suffering caused by HIV, as well as by COVID-19 and other diseases. That is the motivation behind National Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which will be on Aug. 30, with associated virtual events from Aug. 27 – 31.

With awareness must come advocacy. Like many diseases, HIV and COVID-19 have their greatest impact on the marginalized and the vulnerable. People of faith must be strong voices of a global conscience to demand that the world recommit to ending HIV as well as ending the societal forces that lead to marginalization and vulnerability in the first place.

One of these forces is stigma. As Jesse pointed out during our discussion, stigma has been a factor in the HIV epidemic since the beginning, and it is still a significant factor. As people of faith, we must speak loudly, demanding that all people be treated with dignity and respect, and that HIV prevention and treatment services be available to all without stigma or discrimination.

With awareness must also come action.

People of faith have been on the front lines since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, and we must remain on the front lines if the world is to succeed in ending HIV as a public health threat by 2030.

In fact, we must become stronger. The societal forces that are barriers to ending the HIV epidemic can only be addressed with strong involvement by people of faith. As described in a recent strategic analysis, Faith and HIV in the Next Decade, there are important roles for religious leaders and lay people, for religious institutions and faith-based organizations, and for national and international interreligious coalitions.

Local faith communities have an especially important role, since they are best positioned to raise awareness among their members about the basic facts about HIV and AIDS, to provide care and support for people living with HIV, to protect the vulnerable and reach out to the marginalized, and to reduce the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.

Several upcoming events provide good opportunities to re-energize the faith response to HIV. On Sept. 10, there will be a webinar on the role of faith in addressing two pandemics at the same time: Dueling Pandemics: Faith, HIV and COVID-19. The United States HIV & AIDS Faith Coalition will host a series of webinars about the faith response to HIV in the United States. From a more global perspective, the Interfaith HIV Conference will be held on Sept. 22-24.

National Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the US HIV & AIDS Faith Coalition and the Interfaith HIV Conference all have the same theme: Resilience and Renewal.

Now is the time for people of faith to demonstrate our resilience and to renew our commitment to ending HIV by 2030.

After a thirty-year career as a computer scientist, internet entrepreneur, and business consultant, Dr. Barstow felt a personal calling to change directions. For the past fifteen years, he has been a passionate AIDS activist with a particular focus on the role of faith and religious communities.  He has worked with pastors in Southern Africa to help them deal with the stigma of HIV and AIDS and has become increasingly involved with faith-based activities at the global level. Most recently, he coordinated the Faith and HIV in the Next Decade strategic planning initiative.  He is the author of HIV and AIDS in 2030: A Choice Between Two Futures.