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Faith at the International AIDS Conference

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In the nave of the Washington National Cathedral on July 21, people from around the world gathered to remember the dark early days of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, to call for stiffer resolve and bolder action today, and to evoke the hope that there will be an end to this terrible plague.

"Turning The Tide Together" is the theme of the huge July 22-27 International AIDS conference in Washington DC. Interim Cathedral dean Frank Wade stressed that the challenge of AIDS is one that demands that we unite as a human family. The word "nave" with the same root as "naval", evokes the image of humanity together in a ship, hopefully one borne aloft by a rising tide.

Memories have been a constant theme. The frightening mystery of HIV and AIDS in its early years and the tragic loss of so many lives is something we must not forget. Identified only in 1981, the pandemic has killed some 25 million people and 34 million live with the disease today. To keep memory alive, the bittersweet AIDS memorial quilt returned to Washington. But the loving care that the Quilt represents - remembering each person - stands in stark contrast to the numbing numbers of those affected. Because most are not named and the numbers we hear and use to convey suffering are almost all estimates.

The new President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim was among those who spoke passionately about a remarkable journey that shows what truly is possible: "This has been a movement that came together in anger, that thirsts for justice, that is fundamentally about unleashing the power of human solidarity, and that for 30 years has forged alliances to expand that solidarity and be ever more inclusive." The successes we celebrate are a tribute to remarkable activism and organization, determination and grit, and scientific creativity.

The road ahead is less certain, above all because of money. In today's fiscal crunch, all caring programs seem to be threatened. While AIDS has powerful allies and it inspires something close to an all too rare bipartisan spirit in Washington, AIDS programs face the same chopping block and there is much ironic comment about unrealistic expectations of simply doing more with less.

The hope of an end to the pandemic is symbolized in a stark black and white quilt panel, "The Last One". It was sent, anonomously, without instructions, note or identification but with a message of hope. At last it is not simply dreaming to talk of a last victim, of a generation of children that is free of AIDS.

Orthodox Patriarch Bartolomeo often reminds us that it is "a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands." That captures the essence of how religion has been part of the conference.

In those dark early days of the AIDS pandemic, religious communities, especially in Africa but also in San Francisco, Texas, and Washington DC, were at the forefront. Caring, compassion, and dawning appreciation of the threats to adults and children combined with fear, anger, and condemnation. In the US, gay communities bore the brunt of suffering but also harsh stigma.

Over the decades thousands of religious communities have responded and moved. An interfaith pre-conference highlighted the remarkable good work that so many do, work that often is barely known. Armies of volunteers do selfless work.

A morning at the White House on July 24 brought together national and international faith leaders. The roles that religious communities and leaders played were recalled, as they "turned the tide" of indifference, allying Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama in supporting bold support for AIDS programs. At Georgetown University on July 25, Senators Mary Landrieu and Lindsay Graham spoke passionately to the spiritual commitment to helping those in need. As Pastor Rick Warren observed: "We may not agree on a lot as Christians, but we can agree to work together to stop AIDS."

The faith dimensions of the conference thus echoed its core message of achievement and hope for the future.

I spoke with one of the true religious heroes of the AIDS marathon, Canon Gideon Byamugisha from Uganda, an episcopal priest living with AIDS who named two daughters born healthy to two positive parents Hope and Love. He spoke at our Berkley Center at Georgetown to the complexities and continuing challenges of AIDS, and especially stigma and discrimination. Have we, I ask, reached a tipping point where the wonderful work of so many dedicated religious people overcomes the darker sides of condemnation and prejudice? Why does homophobia still have so many deeply religious allies? Have we reached a tipping point where the potential for good of religious communities will truly be understood and engaged by the global effort?

Because, notwithstanding the warm events celebrating the critical roles that faith plays in the pandemic, a scan of the core documents and the conference agenda suggests that this dimension is relatively marginal and so sensitive that it is barely discussed. Condoms are still a sensitive topic, for example.

There is truly a core of courage and vision within religious communities, exemplified in the common pledges of leaders, commitment to open testing, and above all the thousands of unsung heroes and heroines who are the front line of advocacy and service.

But there are some issues that this pandemic challenges religious communities to confront and they do not seem to get any easier. Above all, to my mind, is the role of women. The pandemic affects more women than men and attitudes towards women as less worthy, less equal fuels the pandemic. Violence against women needs to be front and center as something to combat. Tacit acceptance of what marginalized populations face also needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

HIV and AIDS has forced many squeamish people to discuss comfortably semen and vaginal secretions as well as prostitution. But the complexities of human sexuality are still tabu in many settings. Changing norms in societies where marriage is delayed, for example, demand new approaches. Understandings of family, the core cell of society, need to adapt to realities of modern life. One report I read recently cited "sexual surveillance" by congregations as a tool to fight AIDS. Education and affirmation of core values seem to offer a better path.

It is heartening to realize that the tide is turning, that there is hope. It will take determination and there are fights ahead. But above all we can learn many lessons from the journey, lessons about how the messages of the heart, compassion for example, must respond to evidence and change, and how those in turn translate into action.