Churches respond to global AIDS crisis

Churches respond to global AIDS crisis

Unitarian Universalist congregations raise funds, lobby for international AIDS relief.
Jane Greer


World AIDS Day took place on December 1. But for numerous Unitarian Universalist congregations it was only one day in a succession of many dedicated to the eradication of AIDS and the support of those who suffer because of it.

While some churches conducted special church services or programs to mark the day, others simply carried on with their work—supporting African orphanages and schools, participating in local interfaith AIDS coalitions, and lobbying for legislation such as the Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth Act of 2006 (PATHWAY Act), which will re-examine the U.S. government’s “abstinence only” approach to the control of HIV/AIDS and focus on the special needs of women and youth affected by the disease.

Below are some of the programs and actions sponsored by UU congregations and groups.

The 325-member First Parish Church in Lexington, Mass., is one of many congregations working with people affected by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the areas hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On Sunday, December 3, the church was recognized for its AIDS activism by being designated the first Red Ribbon Congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Global AIDS Coalition. The new award goes to congregations showing leadership in the areas of HIV/AIDS education, political advocacy, collaboration with AIDS direct service providers, and/or fundraising for HIV/AIDS projects.

The Lexington congregation earned the distinction by working with Communities Without Borders, a grass-roots organization that pairs religious, work, school, and other communities in North America with communities in Africa and India. Most of the Lexington church funds have been directed toward the education of orphaned and vulnerable children victimized by the AIDS pandemic. Funds are used primarily for purchasing school uniforms, shoes, backpacks and other school supplies, and medical and transportation expenses. Since 2001, the church has raised approximately $40,000 for these communities, primarily through member donations.

Bernadette Sikanyika, executive director of the Zambia Nsunga Community Without Borders, the church’s Zambian partner organization, wrote to the church, “The educational support you are rendering to the OVC [orphans and vulnerable children] have given them an opportunity to choose what each of them wants to be in life when they finish school. Some of their dreams are to become responsible doctors, teachers, nurses, pilots, police officers, soldiers, journalists, and drivers.”

The 275-member Thomas Jefferson Church of Louisville, Ky., is another congregation assisting sub-Saharan institutions serving those affected by AIDS. The church is supporting the Vihiga Children’s Home in northwest Kenya, which provides a home to 90 children, most orphaned by AIDS.

The Vihiga orphanage includes a kindergarten and elementary school. The church is also supporting a number of students in secondary school, which is not provided for free by the government. The only consistent financial support that the orphanage receives is from Thomas Jefferson members and friends who have created a sponsorship program, medical fund, building fund, library fund, and education fund. Since the program’s start in April 2004, church members have raised $90,000 to support these different activities, including the construction of a dormitory. A group of Thomas Jefferson volunteers went to Kenya last summer to help with construction projects, deliver supplies, and become acquainted with the children and staff.

During an October church service dedicated to the trip, project coordinator Debby Sublett said, “These children touched our hearts. We will never forget their adorable faces and the love they gave us. They are our children now—we are all one family.”

The 177-member Carbondale, Ill., Unitarian Fellowship began its African HIV/AIDS program when one of its members, Carla Feldhamer, a hospice nurse for the Hospice of Southern Illinois, visited AIDS hospices in Zimbabwe as part of an AIDS seminar tour organized by the Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa. Feldhamer was moved by what she saw and suggested to her congregation that they work with the Hospice of Southern Illinois to support one of the Zambian hospices. In 2003 they were partnered with the Ranchhod Hospice and Orphan Daycare, an AIDS hospice and childcare program in Kabwe. For the past three years, the congregation has raised more than $24,000 dollars largely through its annual silent auction and yard sale events. In addition, they have shipped medicine, clothes, reading glasses, shirts, and gifts donated by CUF members and the Hospice of Southern Illinois. In 2006 the congregation received a $5,000 grant from the UU Women’s Federation to fund workshops giving employment to AIDS widows who are supporting families.

The 1,100-member First Unitarian Church of Portland, Ore., founded the UU Global AIDS Coalition in 2002, which emerged with the support of the church’s Social Justice Council. In 2003, the coalition successfully proposed a resolution at the denomination’s annual General Assembly committing UUs to a leadership role in responding to the worldwide AIDS crisis. The coalition has since served as a support and resource center for congregations interested in engaging with global AIDS issues. It also created the Red Ribbon Congregation award as a means of lifting up successful AIDS-related programs.

But not all church AIDS activities are internationally oriented. The 135-member Unitarian Universalist Church of Utica, N.Y., is focusing on local AIDS efforts in collaboration with other religious and secular groups in New York’s Mohawk Valley. “HIV infection rates are rising especially among teenagers in this area,” said the Rev. Naomi King, the church’s minister. “Part of this is through increased drug use. Another reason is that there is no comprehensive sexuality education program in New York State.” Transmission is mostly among heterosexual couples, King added.

The Utica church hosted a noontime interfaith service of memory and hope on December 1 that included representatives from seven other religious groups. The service, which was organized by King in association with AIDS Community Resources, a local multicultural AIDS service agency, was only one of numerous AIDS-related events taking place that day, including an “art happening,” a special concert, vigils, a forum, and lunch events at some of the area’s five colleges. King was part of the organizing committee planning the events. The offering from the noon service went to AIDS Community Resources.

On the political front, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, was one of seven religious and secular speakers at a noontime rally on December 1 in support of the PATHWAY Act. The rally, held at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., was organized by the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy, the National Council of Jewish Women, Advocates for Youth, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and the Center for Health and Gender Equity among others. After the speeches, the bells at area churches started tolling every five seconds, representing the frequency of new HIV infections and AIDS deaths.

Sinkford urged people to support the PATHWAY Act and to lobby for removing the abstinence-until-marriage condition attached to American international HIV/AIDS funding. Sinkford also focused on the heavy toll that AIDS takes on women. “Marriage is no protection against HIV,” Sinkford said, “and abstinence is a luxury available only to those who have complete control over their bodies and wills.”

Related Resources

From the Archives