Yesterday was observed as World AIDS Day.
In the context of the ongoing COVID19 crisis, it might seem that concerns about HIV have been put to rest. Not so. HIV is still very much with us. It is good though, that treatment of one pandemic informs management of another.
Anyway, I must admit that my reflections had more to do with how I got involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy more than with the current state of affairs.
I go back thirty-four years to a day when, as guest of the NEA (USA) I sat in the Louisiana Superdome and listened to Ryan White, who was to die a couple years later from AIDS. This courageous young man, who had contracted the HIV virus through Factor 8, a blood treatment for haemophilia, opened my eyes.
He spoke about the significant adjustments his family had to make, including moving away from home to a place where he could find acceptance and attend school. This was although there were what seemed like a myriad of measures to ensure that he did not share many communal privileges, such as eating spaces and utensils with others. That was at a time when it was already determined that the HIV virus was transmitted via body fluids and not through hugs or handshakes.
When Ryan mentioned that at church, people would avoid shaking his hands during the “passing of the peace,” it hurt. It hurt me to the bone. A passionate Christian, though not at the time a presbyter as I am today, I could not reconcile the thought that in the places where acceptance should be communicated clearly, this was found wanting.
I looked at the Caucasian North American teenager and saw my own black son. It hurt. You see, my son also suffers from a blood disease. And it was through a dose of special grace that he had not contracted the HIV virus. As an infant requiring surgery, because of his blood condition, he needed a transfusion. It was years later, when he was again hospitalised at the same hospital, that I learned of his/ our good fortune. The hospital had tried unsuccessfully to contact us. It was later discovered that the week of his transfusion, the blood bank had been contaminated with the HIV virus. Some of the infants who received blood that week had already died from AIDS. My son was still alive.
How should I show thanks but to be an advocate for those affected by this virus?
I recall the reaction of the health professional who had to work closely with me when I was named as Chair of a National HIV/AIDS programme. She did not think that I fit the bill. She would have preferred someone other than the minister of a church. If she were the one to decide, the friendship that developed between us would never have happened, and I would have been denied that chance to serve as an advocate.
But that I did knowing that giving thanks calls for more than speaking kind words. It requires us to give of ourselves to the cause(s) we support.