The National Cathedral's Gothic limestone walls and majestic high ceilings echoed with the sounds of calls to prayer in three languages. The recently unveiled 2012 AIDS Memorial Quilt stood in sharp contrast to the antiquated stained glass windows. Meanwhile, imams, priests, pastors, rabbis and community leaders solemnly walked toward the altar with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Community Church of D.C. gospel choir not far behind. Although the hundreds of participants from around the globe and their religious practices were as diverse as the clothing they wore, all united with a common purpose and conviction: a commitment to eradicating AIDS inspired by their values.
The Interfaith Service of Hope and Commitment embodied a declaration made by South African Reverend Fr. JP Mokgethi-Heath the previous day at the AIDS 2012 Interfaith pre-Conference: "HIV is bigger than the church, but it isn't bigger than God."
This past weekend, I was privileged to attend the interfaith pre-conference and prayer service as an intern with American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization that is inspired by Judaism's commitment to justice and works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world. Sometimes, when I explain how my commitment to human rights is connected to my interfaith work, I am met with skepticism. What do religious and nonreligious values, including interfaith work, have to do with solving the world's most pressing issues? It is clear that the people asking these questions have never encountered the inspiring clergy, community organizers and activists I met in Washington, D.C.
For instance, Dr. Nyambura Njoroge helps run the Tamar Campaign, a project led by women in sub-Saharan Africa that uses the biblical story of the rape of Tamar to address gender-based violence and sexual health through creating safe spaces for the rape of Tamar discussion, raising awareness and drafting community action plans. Like the other pre-conference participants, Nyambura understands that faith-based organizations are in a unique position to address two of the most overlooked but significant barriers to combating HIV: stigma and lack of information.
Activists are creatively using faith and the high esteem religious organizations often hold in communities to reduce discrimination, specifically against marginalized populations such as women and sexual minorities. As AJWS President Ruth Messinger remarked during a conference plenary session, "Eradicating the AIDS pandemic requires much more than medicine." She continued to explain that reducing stigma, creating smart policies and focusing on the human rights of vulnerable populations are essential. Faith-based organizations have a particularly prominent role in addressing all of these often-neglected factors.
In addition, reaching "the last one" affected by AIDS may also require a little faith.
Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim speakers continually articulated how their faith helped them through their most challenging days and gave them much-desired dignity. Faith gave other speakers the strength to continue working toward a day when AIDS is not only eradicated, but also when all those with HIV can realize their human rights.
Faghmeda Miller, who works to reduce stigma among South African Muslims, explained that she fights for the human rights of those with HIV because, according to Islam, human rights are naturally endowed by God. In his keynote address, Rabbi David Saperstein stated that Jews are obligated to work toward the end of AIDS because of B'tzelem Elohim, a fundamental belief that every human being is created in the image of God.
However, at the interfaith pre-conference and prayer service, participants not only found strength in their own faiths, but in the support and solidarity of those from all religious and philosophical traditions who share in the same struggle. Although the work that each individual faith-based organization does on its own is incredible, when we gathered together in one space, we could easily see how much we are accomplishing through our collective efforts.
As American Bishop Yvette Flunder stated, "This is an opportunity for us to see how big God really is."
At the conclusion of the prayer service, we all sang, "Siyahamba/ We are Marching in the Light of God" and left the historic cathedral to continue our march to end AIDS and achieve human rights for all. Although we may work across oceans and with different populations, we are fueled by our shared values and commitment to the same larger mission. AIDS does not discriminate based on religion.
We are all marching together.