Struggling to Swim Upstream

12-09-2010 by

Geoff Ashmun
HIV/AIDS Summit VI gathers local pastors, names tough obstacles and new strategies

“I’m tired of lighting candles.” With those words from the Reverend Ed Sanders, solemn nods spread across an intimate gathering at Augustana Chapel at the conclusion of World Aids Day and the HIV/AIDS Summit VI hosted at McCormick Theological Seminary.

The Chief Executive Officer and Senior Servant of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church’s Technical Assistance Network (MICTAN) in Nashville, Sanders stood before a gathering of more than 75 ministers and lay church leaders earlier that same morning, keynoting a program entitled “Waging War: African American Churches and Communities on the Battlefield,” co-sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Illinois African American Coalition for Prevention, the National Black Church Initiative, and the Center for Faith and Community Health Transformation.

Sanders articulated with candor and compassion the daunting landscape of African American communities, which are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2007, nearly half of all persons diagnosed with HIV are African American. At some point in their lifetimes, one in 16 African American men and one in 30 African American women will be diagnosed with the virus – and these grave statistics in recent years have remained stable.

But even participants, a few of whom have been diagnosed with the virus, knew the numbers all too well. Rather than rehearse a litany of morbid figures, Sanders and panelists representing the pharmaceutical industry, the medical profession, and street-level HIV/AIDS ministries named a handful of particularly knotty realities about addressing the epidemic. One panelist generated lively discussion about HIV/AIDS as a reality for middle-aged and elderly persons, while another spoke of the situation of male prostitutes driven by financial desperation to support their families in self-destructive ways.

Whatever the particular face of the epidemic, the scope of HIV/AIDS is not to be underestimated, Sanders concluded. He noted that in his 26 years working in MICTAN, he has learned that “you cannot deal with this issue without dealing with all of the other realities that haunt our communities,” specifically naming racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, lack of economic and educational opportunities, and inadequate access to healthcare.

And so the scope and magnitude of the problem, Sanders insisted, requires “bringing everybody along, to teach them how to think over against what to think” - in spite of the theological, generational and other differences that can pit members of congregations or communities against one another. “HIV/AIDS is an arena of consideration where the textbooks are still being written and the theories are still being developed.”

Concerted efforts to approach HIV/AIDS critically and systemically, Sanders argued, can bring insights from beyond the realm of superficial progress.

“There is the business of HIV/AIDS – and I emphasize business. It has compromised the full potential of our response to what faces us.” He spoke of a river of life by which institutions have established themselves, ever increasing their response to the drowning bodies floating by,  “unable to hear the person who asks, ‘But when in the hell are you going to go further upstream to find out why people keep falling in the river?’”

Indeed, Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, which was founded only months before HIV/AIDS first gained national attention in 1981, has for 10 years pioneered a program funded in part by the CDCP to do just that – move upstream. 

“We’ve come to the conclusion that drive-bys don’t work. And I must admit that the sort of thing I’ve done this morning is a drive-by,” he said. “We’ve had some great events, but the question really becomes one of sustaining something long-term. We are now spending six-month stretches in a community where our faculty work with pastors and lay leaders and do what we call ‘capacity building.’ We have four more years of funding and I would love to see us work with you here in Chicago.”