Key leaders from America's religious, academic and media communities gathered at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta from November 8-11, 1998, for the first Convocation on AIDS and Religion in America. The conference marked the first time since the beginning of the epidemic that religious leaders representing numerous faith traditions and their media outlets came together to learn about HIV/AIDS and make very specific recommendations on prevention and education to their communities, leaving moral judgments behind. Fr. Tom, Dignity's National AIDS Project Chair, attended the symposium as one of the faculty members.
The convocation, convened by the AIDS National Interfaith Network, Ford Foundation, Interfaith Health Program of the Carter Presidential Center, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provided an opportunity for the 220 participants to ponder the HIV/AIDS pandemic at a crucial juncture, when the challenges it poses are shifting radically.
Fr. Tom commented, "I was so proud to be a part of the faculty for the conference. As Dignity's representative, I can assure you that we were instrumental in making certain that the voice of GLBT people of faith was heard. In fact, with the loss of MCC's HIV/AIDS program office, we were the only such voice. As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, we added our own unique perspective, which could not be represented by such official bodies as Catholic Charities USA, the National Catholic AIDS Network (NCAN) and diocesan HIV/AIDS ministries."
Nevertheless, Fr. Tom was somewhat disheartened by the minimal response from other Catholic groups and media. "HIV/AIDS still remains unspoken of in our newspapers, magazines and pulpits," he said. "The Church seems to think that two pastoral letters written several years ago are enough. Yet the pandemic continues to be far from over, and the Church seems to be losing sight of an imperative to take action. Though the Church may be at the front lines of medical care in the pandemic, it still misses out when it comes to education and prevention." The convocation was convened in a time when many Americans mistakenly believe that the AIDS epidemic is over. The truth, according to Fr. Tom, is that this epidemic poses growing challenges to American culture, communities and faith groups. The following are a few of the realities that must be confronted:
Despite much of the recent publicity about the new "miracle drug cocktails," and the fact that death rates are indeed declining, the disease is anything but over. AIDS/HIV services are strained to the breaking point in many local communities due to the rising infection rates in some demographic groups, and since many people are living much longer with the virus. While still prevalent in the white gay male world, AIDS is increasingly becoming a disease of women and children, IV drug users, families, people over 50, teenagers and people of color.
Many Americans have been lulled into a false sense of security by the hopeful new treatments, reverting back to unsafe sex practices, leading to further dramatic increases in infection rates. Religious communities and the media alike face profound educational and prevention challenges in helping to reverse this dangerous and disturbing trend.
Many of America's diverse religious communities have responded vigorously, compassionately and courageously to the epidemic. In fact, the largest non-governmental response in America comes from the many thousands of local congregations, regional interfaith networks and faith-based national bodies. Yet people of faith continue to struggle with fear, prejudice, homophobia and the many ethical and moral dilemmas that the AIDS pandemic presents.