11/07/2012 01:49 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

The Compassion Gap -- Faith Communities and the Stigma of HIV and AIDS

There is a stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. People known to be -- or even thought to be -- infected by HIV are often shunned, condemned and rejected by family, friends and community, resulting in needless suffering for millions. Fear of such treatment causes people to avoid testing and to delay treatment. Stigma is so strong and widespread that it has a significant effect on the pandemic -- HIV spreads faster because of stigma. A 2011 study by the HIV Prevention Trials Network showed that timely treatment prevents further transmission of the virus. But because of stigma, testing is often delayed and treatment is often not timely. So, we have the medical and scientific knowledge that we need to end the pandemic, but stigma prevents us from taking full advantage of that knowledge.

The sad fact is that the stigma of HIV and AIDS could be dramatically reduced if the world's faith communities were to take the right kinds of action. Historically, many faith communities have proclaimed judgmental attitudes towards people living with HIV. That has changed to a degree, and silence is now more common. Unfortunately, silence reinforces stigma. Faith communities that take proactive steps to fight stigma are still relatively rare.

The problem was highlighted at a recent conference in Lilongwe, Malawi, dealing with the faith response to the AIDS pandemic. EMPACT Africa, a non-profit created to fight stigma, conducted a survey of participants, focused on the faith communities where the participants worship. The survey included questions about the knowledge and beliefs of the members, as well as the actions taken by the faith community in the previous year. The primary output of the survey was a rating for each faith community on a list of ten characteristics of a Stigma-Free Faith Community. At the conference, there were about a hundred responses to the survey, largely from Christian faith communities, but also including other faith traditions such as Islam.

In looking at the full set of responses, the most striking result involved comparing two specific characteristics. Characteristic #9, focused on teaching the personal responsibility of members to avoid risky behavior, had one of the strongest ratings. Characteristic #5, focused on consistently delivering messages of compassion rather than judgment, had by far the weakest rating. The difference between these two characteristics might be referred to as the Compassion Gap, which can be summarized by saying that we are much better at telling other people how to live than we are at telling them that we love them. The Compassion Gap is a root cause of the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.

The survey sample size was too small to draw broad conclusions, but the results should at least give faith communities some pause for reflection, not only in Africa where the HIV prevalence rates are highest, but also here in the United States, and in other regions as well. What message are we giving to the members of our faith communities? If it is more about judgment than love, then is it any wonder that people with HIV feel stigmatized, and that they are reluctant to seek help where they worship?

Fortunately, local faith communities can fix the problem by taking proactive steps. First, obviously, is to put a lot more effort into messages of compassion. Messages of personal responsibility are important, but must be balanced by messages of love and compassion. In addition, there are two specific best practices that can be quite effective and that were not used very often by the faith communities in the survey. One involves the personal testimony of people infected with HIV -- such testimonies help move the discussion from theoretical issues of dogma to the realities of life for real human beings. The second is for faith leaders to be publicly tested for HIV -- such actions demonstrate that we are all in this together, that there is no "Us vs. Them" in fighting the AIDS pandemic.

As more and more local faith communities take proactive steps such as these, the Compassion Gap will be reduced. People living with HIV will realize that faith communities can be places of hope, not judgment. People will be more willing to be tested, and treatment will not be delayed. Fewer people will become infected. We will finally turn the tide on the AIDS pandemic.

David Barstow is Founder and President of EMPACT Africa, an Austin, Texas non-profit dedicated to working with local church leaders in southern Africa to fight the stigma of HIV and AIDS.