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Editor's Column

Attitudes Are Changing

Attitudes Are Changing


Our cover feature for this issue is about more than just how black churches in America are becoming more open to recognizing the fact that there are men and women in their congregations who are HIV-positive. Instead of staying rooted in the belief that HIV disease is a 'gay disease' that cannot possibly exist among their flocks, church leaders have seen that the men, women, and children they preach to each week are dying. (Not only do half of all new HIV infections each year in this country happen among African-Americans, AIDS is the number 1 cause of death for black Americans between 25 and 44.) After years of having advocates reach out to church leaders about the need for them to acknowledge their congregants who are living with HIV, many of those church leaders are now taking the reins and are working with individuals to ensure that they get tested and get into a treatment program if they indeed find out they are positive. Although congregations nationwide will be involved in March with the 15th annual Black Church Week of Prayer, established to focus on AIDS via churches, this change of attitude among church leaders and their being hands-on in teaching congregants about HIV is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was just over a year and a half ago that the Black AIDS Institute's Phill Wilson wrote in HIV Plus that 'preachers still choose condemnation over education.' When you read this issue's cover story, you will see that that mind-set of exclusion has given way to enlightenment. This is also happening in some other surprising places. In Asia, for example, the rate of HIV infections on the Indian subcontinent is expected to easily outpace that of South Africa by decade's end. The stigma for residents of both areas of being condemned or excluded has allowed the virus to rage unchecked for years. In December, though, a conference held in Indian neighbor Nepal brought representatives of all of South Asia's many religious faiths together with AIDS activists. Amazingly, even leaders of some of the region's most orthodox faiths were interested in finding ways to encourage their peers to help 'in every way'to pray for the sick, to comfort those inflicted, and to help spread awareness and prevention strategies,' according to Sadig Rasheed, the South Asia director for the United Nations Children's Fund. At a similar conference less than a decade ago, religious leaders condemned such ideas, based on their beliefs that people were falling ill to HIV due to fate, a divine punishment for their immoral acts. One of the standout visionaries at the Nepal conference was a Buddhist monk from Thailand, Ven Phra Tuangsit. He is the head of an anti-HIV project called Sangha Metta. Buddhist clerics involved with the organization work with high-risk groups, such as sex workers, as well as youths to educate them about protecting themselves against HIV'even if it means showing them how to use a condom properly. Attendees at the conference'even religious leaders'are hoping to duplicate the project throughout other parts of South Asia. After the conference Ven Phra Tuangsit told BBC News, 'At first people were worried that it was inappropriate for a Buddhist cleric to work with condoms and things, but now people realize that I'm practicing Buddhist compassion. They listen and respect us because we are monks. So much has changed.' Indeed it has.

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