“What Effective Clergy Should Know About HIV/AIDS: A Science Based Perspective” is a required course for my Master’s Degree at Payne Theological Seminary. I left one rainy Sunday afternoon headed for Wilberforce, Ohio thinking that this seven hour journey would be a waste of time and money. After all, I have had many workshops in HIV/AIDS prevention and just could not fathom what would be studied for an entire week.
Needless to say that I was completely amazed at the amount of knowledge I realized I was missing. Dr. Oveta Fuller has a unique way of taking scientific information and presenting it in a way that my non-scientific mind could comprehend. As an ordained clergyperson she is able to approach the issues clergy encounter with authority, experience and compassion.
During this week of instruction I learned that HIV is not the powerful, giant of a disease that I had once thought it to be. There are only 4 ways to contract HIV—semen, vaginal fluid, blood and breast milk/delivery. All contact can be avoided and transmission can be prevented.
I learned that a mother who is pregnant can prevent transmitting to the fetus by taking Antiretroviral medications (ARV’s) 4 weeks before delivery and 4 weeks after if breast feeding. I learned that discordant partners (one positive and one negative) can prevent transmission if both take ARV’s.
We discussed the impact of economics on a person’s ability to receive treatment and prevent infection and the overall impact of HIV/AIDS on the global economy. We discussed how the stigma of HIV prevents people all over the world from being tested. We also discussed the ethics of treatment.
We learned that a person usually has symptoms between the first and third year of infection. We discussed at length the important role clergy have to play in reducing the stigma that is associated with testing for and living with HIV/AIDS. All of this information was so powerful—it was transformational.
And then the moment of truth came—the opportunity for our class to be tested for HIV/AIDS. I wasn’t so sure about this. I mean, I understood the importance of testing and agreed that it is powerful for clergy to say, “I’ve been tested.” “If you’re positive you’re positive whether you know it or not,” Dr. Fuller said. While this is a simple, revelatory truth there’s something about “ignorance is bliss” that seemed comforting.
The nurse from the Greene County Health Department arrived and sat in the back of the class until Dr. Fuller was finished with her presentation. I felt my heart begin to race. I sent a text to my husband and children, “Getting an HIV test today.” My daughter was the only one who responded, “What?! You?! Why?!” I responded with assurance that testing was the responsible thing to do, blah, blah, blah while inside I was shaking in my boots!
Testing was easy enough: take this swabby thing and rub it on your gums. The test collects cells and within a few minutes you will know whether or not you are HIV positive.
Wow! Thinking about how life could change in an instant was disconcerting. If the test was positive there would be a blood test and if it were positive then treatment would have to begin. If it were positive you would have to think back and consider all the ways you may have been infected and all the people who are at risk. Good Lord!
In my twenties, after my divorce, I discovered I liked sex—I really liked sex. Whew! I knew that I had to get a grip when I had a one-night stand with a blind date. I don’t even remember his name! What if my test was positive and the culprit was Mr. What’s-His-Name? Wouldn’t that just be my luck!? The thought of my life being forever altered by a man whose name I cannot recall for a sexual experience I do not want to recall—gee whiz!
I was equally as frightened about all of the sex I, by default, had with every person my ex-husband had sex with while we were married. What if one of his encounters changed more than my marital status?
A swarm of feelings from fear to anger to shame engulfed me as I sat in class semi-listening to Dr. Fuller talk about the global impact of AIDS.
We were each given a confidential health questionnaire to complete which added to my stress.
Have you had sex with males or females in the last 12 months? Okay, that’s simple. Male. How many sexual partners have you had in the last 12 months? One.
Have you been the giver or receiver of anal intercourse in the last 12 months? Have you given oral intercourse in the last 12 months? I am married and have been for 12 years. I stand before groups of men and women proclaiming the marriage bed is “undefiled”—if it feels good do it, if both partners agree….blah, blah, blah. Now, here I sat with my questionnaire guarding the answers fearing someone will see if I mark “yes” or “no.”
There were some questions about drug use and tattoos, but I don’t remember them as clearly—they were less traumatic.
In a matter of a few minutes my entire sexual past and my entire promised future ran like a movie in my mind. Will that which was done in the dark come out in the light—here, at school, in front of everyone? Well, even if it did, I’m cool. I’ll be cool. I can be cool. Well, I’ve had some cool moments. Holy Crap!
The Centers for Disease Control recommends baseline HIV testing for everyone 13-64 and annually thereafter for higher risk persons. Knowing your status will reduce your sense of stress should you ever test positive. Truth be told, not knowing is very stressful if you’ve had a sexually active past.
For me, every time I have been sick with the flu or flu-like symptoms a little voice would say, “what if you have AIDS?”
Knowing my status has silenced the faint voices of guilt and fear.
As Christians we enjoy the knowledge that “every Saint has a past and every Sinner has a future.” We don’t like to acknowledge that sometimes there are natural consequences to our natural behaviors.
Let me say this to you: your past is past. God forgives. It’s just that easy. If you are HIV positive it is not a punishment for sin, it is a consequence of behavior.
Opt out testing has gone into effect in many places. In talking to a colleague about HIV testing he expressed a concern about his information going into a system, about the insurance company being notified and about possible privacy violations.
Testing through the health department reduces the risk of your information going into a system. Only positive results are reported to the Centers for Disease Control. There are also home testing kits that can let you know in moments.
A person should be tested within two weeks of having unprotected sex or contact with blood. If the test is negative one should be tested again within four weeks to make sure.
Protection from HIV/AIDS infection is as easy as ABC:
A—Abstain from sex (and abstain from sharing needles—drugs, insulin, tattoos!)
Contact with infected semen, vaginal fluid or blood is a sure way to become infected.
However, the reality is a lot of people will not abstain…if you are not abstaining
B—Be tested and be faithful to one negative partner (and be careful to sanitize needles before using)
If you are not going to be with one partner for life be tested between partners and be empowered to ask your new sexual partner for his/her status too. If you can swap secretions you can swap statuses!
If your sexual encounters are less predictable….please…
C—Consistently and correctly use condoms
I know that using condoms is a touchy subject for church folks. Please believe me, you are not going to hell for using condoms, but you might get to heaven more quickly if you don’t!
Being tested for HIV/AIDS in my seminary class, while emotionally exhausting, accomplished its goals to inform clergy of our status and to expose us to the anxieties and process of testing.
I can now confidently encourage my readers, family, friends, colleagues and parishioners to get your base-line HIV test and make HIV testing a part of your annual wellness visits. Testing is scary, but knowledge is PEACE and POWER.
“If you’re positive, you’re positive whether you know it or not.”
And if you know you're positive you can receive life sustaining treatment and prevent the continued spread of HIV/AIDS.
I cannot say that I am "proud" that I am negative, but I am relieved and oh, so grateful. Grateful enough to follow the ABC's and encourage others to do the same.
For Confidential Testing In St. Charles County/Surrounding Areas:
St. Charles County Health Department: by appointment
STD Alert: Confidential, fee for service testing for those who do not want to visit the local health department
Private Testing Center: Confidential, fee for service testing for those who do not want to visit the local health department