For many years, my friend and colleague Don E. Messer has challenged the Church to break the conspiracy of silence about the global AIDS crisis.
If you meet Don anywhere, he is likely to hand you a bookmark that carries the logo of his organization, the Center for the Church and Global AIDs. On the bookmark you will see the mission of his organization stated in five statements:
Challenging the Church to:
- Admitting role in stigmatizing
- Acknowledge failure to act
- Show care, not condemnation
- Promote "safer sex"
- Reach out to help others
- Put money into action
- Break "conspiracy of silence"
- Preach inclusiveness
- Partner with NGO's (non-profits)
- Embrace persons with HIV
Don's life has been all about creating a third way, a small patch of common grass, a safe space for dialogue in the Church that is transformative, that kind of teachable moment that mediates shared experience, rather than coerces or dominates. In simpler terms, he makes a way for liberals and conservatives to have a civil and productive conversation about AIDS and find ways to work together to stop AIDS once and for all.
As we approach the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., I am particularly grateful for Don and his relentless advocacy for those living with HIV and AIDS.
He has often been a prophet in the wilderness calling out the Church on its apathy about global AIDS and, worse, its complicity in perpetuating the pandemic by through stigma.
He has stood with me in silent vigil at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to protest the church's anti-gay policies regarding ordination and marriage.
Don has been my son Rev. Joshua Love's mentor for many years, and I am confident that Don was a primary catalyst in Joshua's decision to be a chaplain and a minister and an educator about the church and AIDS. When some church leaders refused to stand for my son's ordination, Don stood with us.
Don wrote the forward for Joshua's book entitled "Uncommon Hope" that is an excellent and practical guide for churches and faith-based organizations in conversation about AIDS and ministry.
Don is fearless and filled with love. If there are saints, he is one and would be the first to reject that title.
I am looking forward to time with Don and Joshua, at the International AIDS Conference.
We will work together to encourage Don's vision for the Church and take time to visit my brother Patrick's AIDS Quilt panel (#4361) on July 23, one of 43,000 that will be on display at the Capitol Mall.
I am grateful for Joshua's dedication to the hard work of eradicating stigma, prejudice and fear in the Church. In Don's list of to dos for the Church, admitting the role of stigma is first. I believe that the curriculum and stories in "Uncommon Hope" help people move to that admission as individuals and as congregations.
It is easy for me to be grateful for Don and for my son. I know them and I trust them and they have never tried to harm me in any way. I would be remiss, however, to omit my appreciation for the shifting role of many evangelicals in the lives of many living with HIV and AIDS, from condemnation to constructive compassion. As a person often labeled liberal, it is important for me to express my gratitude for those often labeled as conservative. The common patch of grass on which we stand together is in our collective efforts to support those living with HIV and AIDS and to stop AIDS.
Over the last decade, in no small part due to the outspoken advocacy of Kay Warren, wife of Rick Warren, and the work of World Vision, "evangelicals have become the new internationalists, pushing successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and doing superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo," writes Nicholas Dr. Kristof.
Richard Stearns, head of World Vision, wrote a book in which he said: "evangelicals historically were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy ... a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics."
Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying "that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn't so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49).
Amen, Mr. Stearns.
Before I am taken to task for being pro-World Vision and naive about their problems, allow me to state that WorldVision has issues including charges of corruption and mismanagement, compensation of senior executives and the like -- and, at the same time, is a powerhouse in terms of delivering aid.
I am grateful for the good that they are doing and hope that charges against them will be thoroughly investigated and problems resolved. I hope they will cease and desist from any anti-gay policies or practices once and for all.
I want to believe that World Vision and Don and Joshua and Kay Warren and millions of others like us, as different as we are, can be an uncommon tribe -- people gathered together when we think it is most unlikely, and, out of our holy conscience and, yes, recognizing all of our failures and hypocrisies, still lift up our voices, open our wallets and end AIDS once and for all. Thank you, Don for helping clear the way for us. Thank you Joshua for equipping us with tools. Thank you to The Names Project for creating The Quilt and reminding us that stigma kills. Thank you, Kay Warren, for lighting the fire among the evangelical community, one of the largest mobilized volunteer forces in the world.
If you haven't taken a moment to visit the AIDS Quilt on line or in person, this is the first time it has come to our nation's Capitol since 1996. Don't miss the opportunity to reflect on your own commitment do the crisis of people living with HIV and AIDS and what you can do to make a difference in their lives. I hope to see you there in spirit if you cannot be there in body. I know I will see a cloud of witnesses surrounding The Quilt.