Column By: Tiffany Smith
Tiffany lives in Atlanta, GA and works with the Emory COMPASS Coordinating Center. She previously worked for the Peace Corps and USAID, stationed in Zambia, from 2015-2018. She is passionate about addressing health disparities, sustainable development, and culturally appropriate care.
Imagine you have a friend who is a member of the faith-based community and actively involved in their church. One day, your friend finds out that they are HIV positive, doesn’t know how to cope with the diagnosis, and begins expressing thoughts of despair and hopelessness. Your friend wants to turn to their faith community for spiritual guidance, but refrains from connecting with someone due to fears of judgment and rejection. Your friend is adamant that their church won’t understand and that there is no support for individuals living with HIV in the faith community.
Taking this fictional story into reality, let’s address the concerns of your friend. They believe that faith communities will not provide physical, emotional, and spiritual support for individuals living with HIV. Is this factual? Not entirely! However, for many, this isn’t a fictional story and they have had their fair share of challenges. While there are still opportunities to address stigma within faith communities, there are many within the faith community who are embracing their role in promoting prevention and care efforts and caring for the whole person. They acknowledge that faith and wellness go hand in hand and believe that you cannot have one without the other. However, your fictional friend is not alone in these thoughts, but there is a lot of inspirational and substantial work done in the faith community to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One of those efforts is happening this week: The 30th National Week of Prayer and Healing of AIDS (NWPHA).
The NWPHA was initiated by the Balm of Gilead, an organization supporting faith-based organizations in the African American community with addressing health disparities, especially among those living with HIV. The purpose of the NWPHA is to bring national attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and the extraordinary role faith communities can and are playing in HIV/AIDS prevention, education, service, and advocacy. To focus on the last goal of bringing attention to the role faith communities are playing in addressing the epidemic, I talked to Dr. Tiye Link, licensed minister, who manages HealthyU, a service organization of Nashville Cares. HealthyU consists of educational programs and social groups for people living with HIV/AIDS, and under her leadership, it has grown to include wellness programs such as Healthy Relationships, Spiritual Connection, Healthy Living, and Ask-a-Pharmacist. Dr. Link shared insights on the need for more HIV research starting with the faith community and the challenges in getting more individuals from the faith community to be a part of the movement. “Studies have shown,” she said, “that over 60% of individuals have ties to the faith community.” A lot of those individuals might be living with HIV, so it is important that research is done in order to help educate leaders in the faith community to be involved in the fight. These research methods can be in the form of surveys or one-on-one interviews. The data collected from this research can help inform faith leaders about the number of people tied to the faith community, the estimated number of those that are living with HIV, and, through the interviews, what people living with HIV (PLWH) need to be supported by the faith community. All of these data can not only further show the impact of HIV/AIDS in the United States, but can also show that it also affects people of faith and is an issue that cannot be ignored.
In terms of challenges with addressing the HIV epidemic through faith communities, Dr. Link stated that abstinence-only education has been a barrier. “We need to have open conversations about sex. There are no initial conversations about sex. Having that initial conversation to educate on the ways to prevent and protect ourselves is key,” she explained.
Dr. Link also shed light on the activities of the faith communities in Nashville. Her church conducts testing events every year for four days during the summer. There are also collaborations with Nashville Cares and church members to discuss ministering techniques for those who disclose that they are living with HIV and seeking guidance or support.
Although there have been great strides, there is still improvement to be made. Dr. Link suggests that pastors need to get together to discuss the epidemic. There must be a united front on how to provide support to individuals living with HIV in their congregations and how to help address the epidemic within the larger community. Educational HIV workshops in churches can help as well. There are many people who are still unaware of the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and the faith community is an additional platform to reach more Americans and spread awareness.
If you know someone who is living with HIV and a member of the faith community, take a moment this week to share stories of those, like Dr. Link, that are working tirelessly to be pioneers in their faith communities in addressing the epidemic. Hopefully through their example, congregants in churches across the South, and nationwide, will have more opportunities to seek the help and resources they need within their church home.
Lastly, I want to leave you with this parting advice. If you are living with HIV and a member of the faith community, I want you to close your eyes. Imagine you are walking down an empty road. Before you know it, you will stop at the intersection of faith and wellness. At this intersection, there is love, respect, security, and hope. Now say to yourself, “God created my body. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. My body is a temple and I must take care of it. If I believe that God is sovereign, I know that I can live happily and fully and do all that I am meant to do.”