Faith Communities Need to Fight Stigma, Lutheran Pastor Says

February 27, 2014

Reprinted from Journal Sentinel – February 24, 2014

The faith community plays an essential role in educating congregations about HIV/AIDS and fighting the stigma that keeps those with the virus from seeking physical and spiritual healing, a Lutheran pastor who is herself HIV-positive told a Milwaukee audience Monday.

“It’s very important for faith leaders to lead the charge and be the model,” said the Rev. Andrena Ingram of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, who is thought to be the only openly HIV-positive pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“I fight a lot against stigma, especially stigma in the church,” she said.

Ingram, a former drug addict who contracted the virus when she was homeless and living on the streets, spoke as part of a sparsely attended round table on HIV/AIDS co-sponsored by All Peoples Lutheran Church, the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA, and Diverse & Resilient, a statewide public health agency for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

The attendance illustrates the difficulty of engaging the faith community in what is for many a controversial topic that touches not just on sex and sexuality but often racial disparity as well, said the Rev. Steve Jerbi of All Peoples, who has been trying to engage local pastors on the issue for a year.

In the city of Milwaukee, the incidence of HIV infection of young African American men who have sex with other men skyrocketed 247% between 1999 and 2008, considerably higher than the comparable Latino and white populations in the same age group, according to the Milwaukee Health Department. At the same time, religious and cultural mores keep the African American community and the black church from addressing the issue.

Ciera McKissick of Diverse & Resilient said young black LGBTQ people often lack the family and social support that their white counterparts might have. The black church often sees homosexuality as sinful. Those who come out to family members are often thrown out of their homes, and within 72 hours of living on the street are trading sex for food and shelter.

“If people are told that they are bad and sinful and disgusting by the people in their lives, they’re not going to take measures to take care of themselves,” McKissick said.

Diverse & Resilient is hoping to draft faith leaders in a campaign to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS in their communities and to educate their congregations about how to limit the spread of the virus.

“We’re fighting for the same things — love, wholeness, accepting people for who they are,” McKissick said.

Rhonda Hill, director of discipleship for the ELCA synod, who spoke of her own family members who have lived with HIV and died of AIDS-related illnesses, said the church can play an important role in creating a safe haven for LGBTQ people. But she said trying to change believers’ theological positions on homosexuality would fail.

“There’s a lot of relearning that has to be done. And you can’t do it by making people change their (religious) beliefs,” Hill said. “You may grow compassion and acceptance. But it takes time and education. It won’t help to make others feel bad about what they believe.”