Melbourne AIDS 2014 Conference

Submitted by Rev. J.S.

I flew to Melbourne leaving Tuesday the 15 arriving early the morning of the 17th Melbourne time. I spent that day seeing some of the sights and trying to stay awake to adjust to the time zone. I went to bed fairly early that night knowing I would not get a normal night’s sleep only waking up about 3am to see the news of the plane being shot down which was soon to be followed by the realization that some prominent researches and friends of many at the conferences were aboard.
Many Delegates were aboard the Malaysian flight. This included “Joep Lang, a pioneer in the field of AIDS research…Lange dedicated his life to researching HIV. Since 1983 he has been studying the virus and working to develop possible treatments.” Candles were lit, ribbons were tied and tears were shed. A gray cloud hung over all the conferences.
The first Conference I attended was “Stepping up in faith!” This was put on by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance which is “an international network of churches and Church related organizations committed to helping member organizations and partners strengthen their capacity and engagement to help us all be more effective in speaking out and acting for Justice and Peace” This was a gathering of religious leaders from all over the world. Most of us living with or affected by HIV. The common topic of not just this pre-conference but throughout the WORLDAIDS2014 conference was the end of stigmatization and discrimination.
Michael Schulemeyer who has served as the executive director of the United Church of Christ AIDS network for 12 years opened the first plenary at stepping up in faith. Looking back at where we have journeyed with HIV/AIDS so far we can easily see there is still need for an international AIDS Conference. Michael reminded us that in the mid ‘80’s was a very difficult time in the epidemic with no effective treatments, healthcare workers with inadequate training people ended up relegated to AIDS wards with no hope. Many died alone. The faith response lagged behind and was a strong source of stigmatization. Now, almost 30 years later and many of the same issues still exist.
There are places in this world where it is punishable by death to be gay. There are 81 countries that have anti-homosexuality laws still on the books and that includes the United States. As of May 16th we knew of 102 people who were in prison for being gay and 75 more awaiting trial.
There are faith based organizations who infiltrate countries pretending to promote God’s love and yet fuel hate. They teach abstinence, faithfulness and, maybe, condom if one can’t be faithful this method called ABC has proven to be a complete failure… The belief if you have AIDS it is Gods punishment even if you are born with it is still being taught in some places. Children denied access to medication and/or school for the belief that it was their mothers own fault that they contracted HIV.
I have become part of an organization known as INERELA+. This “is an international network of religious leaders – lay and ordained, women and men – living with, or personally affected by HIV.” They have an education tool kit on their website that uses a more empowering program. The acronym is S.A.V.E. which means Safer Practices, access to treatment, voluntary and confidential and regular testing, and empowerment.
At the moment I started to write this activists were fighting Uganda’s anti-gay laws in the constitutional court. They have won on a technicality. The man who promoted such a law, Scott Lively, has been brought up on human rights violations by a Ugandan civil rights group and is awaiting trial in a Massachusetts court. In Ibiza Spain the sex workers have formed a union which allows them “to obtain work permits, pay taxes, reap the benefits of Healthcare, pension and get their first credit cards.” This allows them access to testing not just for HIV but all STD’s as well as hep c and TB.
I heard stories of how IV drug users who were in recovery due to a wonderful program had gone back to work and were supporting their families in Crimea but when Russia came in all the programs stopped. You see due to ignorance, stigma and fear, Russia outlaws the very drugs that help addicts to recover and move away from addiction. According to Bloomberg report; “Among the top 20 global economies, only India, with a population almost nine times bigger than Russia’s 143 million, has more people living with HIV.” All because of Ignorance and stigmatization.
The future of HIV reduction and a better world is if we can teach everyone that there are no need for boundaries. If the world could only say no matter who you are or where you are on life’s Journey you are welcome here. Then to look into our neighbors eyes, the most marginalized, the most scared and frail and say; “what can I do to help you make your life better?” For these lessons, these lessons of love and acceptance can only come from within their own culture and their own community otherwise it is just the west imposing their liberal beliefs upon them.
Personally as an openly Gay Minister who was diagnosed with “full blown AIDS” in 1995 this was an amazing and yet heart wrenching experience. I had mixed emotions as I walked through a room full of nothing but HIV and AIDS groups empowering people to care for themselves and offering voices for those underserved and often not heard. The initial feeling of heartache at the heavy reminders of how far we have yet to go. How lucky and blessed I am to be alive. I was lifted up by the stories of strength and survival and heartbroken by stories of stigmatization, fear and hatred.
I have 149 abstracts to review and go through I have business cards and folders, and papers from all over the world. I have memories to last a life time but, more importantly, I feel renewed call to action. I have built relationships that will continue as I find ways for my ministry and voice to engage on a much more global level. I want to truly thank PNME for this opportunity. I could not have had this experience without your help.