It will take some time, solid commitment, solidarity and sacrifice -- but, yes, it really is possible to stop the spread of AIDS in America. The HIV virus itself may be blind: not acknowledging differences of age, race, gender or wealth; yet from my nearly 20 years first-hand experience at Joseph's House, a hospice home in the District of Columbia for men and women who are homeless and dying of AIDS, I am a witness that AIDS in Washington DC is a disease of poverty. Bringing an end to AIDS in America means bringing an end to poverty in America. And if we choose to, our country - still the richest nation in the world - can do just that!
Joseph's House offers a very particular, very special kind of leadership to our community in compassionate care of the dying. We practice being fully present to every woman and man who comes to Joseph's House to live out the last days and weeks of their lives. We help them make those days and hours really count. We practice loving kindness unconditionally. We listen deeply. And we accompany, around the clock, each person as they die. We believe that no one should die alone.
Yes, when the wider community recognizes Joseph's House for its exquisite care of individuals who are still dying of AIDS, we sometimes fear that attention is diverted from the social structures that caused much of this suffering in the first place. The environments in which many impoverished African-American children in Washington DC have to grow up, for instance, are intolerable: violence, drug use, joblessness, high rates of incarceration, absent fathers and so on. The schools are inadequate and over half the children drop out before high school graduation. There's no place for these children as they grow into adulthood. Of the black men who drop out of high school, two-thirds aren't working at any given time. The criminal justice system is highly discriminatory against African Americans so that a black drug user has twenty times the risk of going to jail as a white drug user. At any given time, one third of young, black, inner-city men without a high school diploma are incarcerated, decimating their communities. And studies indicate that it's that differential rate of incarceration between blacks and whites that's deeply related to AIDS being nine times more common among black men than white men and a stunning eighteen times higher among black women than white women.
As necessary and as wonderful as Joseph's House and many other institutions like ours are - we're not enough within a culture that co-opts the good to work against the best. It doesn't have to be this way. Through our political advocacy we can change those economic, governmental, social and even religious structures that have built poverty and caused the spread of AIDS among the poor. If we choose to, we Americans can re-unite compassion and justice.
NOTE: Joseph's House is featured in the documentary film, "The Other City," opening in theaters in New York City and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 17th and Los Angeles on Sept. 24th. Find more information on Facebook and Twitter.