Adventism, AIDS and Decriminalization – Part Two
By Dr. Keisha McKenzie, November 14, 2017: Some Seventh-day Adventists are doctors or clinicians and live in regions where church members have robust, public conversations about the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Those Adventists might not have many questions about the church’s relationship with people living with HIV or AIDS. But comments like this from one American Adventist grandmother might be more common: “I’m remembering the young people I went to school with in Adventist schools who committed suicide. I wonder now if [church-imposed isolation] was the reason why. There was no safe place, so death was the only way out. I remember the ones in my very class who died of aids [sic]. What if their church could have embraced them? Would they have not run to a community that was rampant with the HIV virus? Would they still be alive today, finding joy in their Creator’s arms and Church family?” (N. Chadwick, Facebook comment, May 10, 2017)
These are great questions.
As other papers in this forum note, the virus and complex of conditions that later became known as HIV and AIDS first broke into public health consciousness in North America in the 1970s. Researchers and advocates argue that the virus first infected humans in the 1920s, but the virus’ trajectory between 1920 and the mid-1970s is unclear. (AVERT, 2017)
The year many people recognize as Year 1 of the modern Western AIDS crisis is 1981, when clusters of young gay men in San Francisco and New York City began presenting with lung infections and a herpes-related tumoral cancer. That year, nearly half of the gay men diagnosed with “severe immune deficiency” died. The following summer, the condition was prematurely labeled GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), and by the fall of 1982, the US Center for Disease Control had renamed it AIDS. AIDS diagnoses were then occurring in the US, Haiti, Spain, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uganda, and affecting men, women, and children regardless of sexual orientation, marital status, addiction status, or prior health. The World Health Organization began monitoring the global prevalence of AIDS in 1983. (AVERT, 2017)
During those years, while several US states still had laws criminalizing same-sex sexuality on the books, a small Adventist church in Southern California launched an unusual ministry to the gay community (then mostly “gay,” or homosexual males). Congregants were inspired by direct interactions—personal relationships—between church members who were gay and HIV seropositive and members who were heterosexual and presumably seronegative.
Under the direction of then Pastor Rudy Torres, and supported by each of its pastors since, Glendale City Church has nurtured a very strong collective conviction about caring for vulnerable people and intentionally welcoming non-heterosexual people. One report ties this ethic to an intimate moment in the early days of the international AIDS pandemic: when Carlos Martinez disclosed his AIDS diagnosis and sense of God’s forgiveness during a Bible class at Glendale, thirty women older than 65 years old responded by wrapping him up in hugs rather than censure and condemnation. (Aghajanian, 2015a)
Martinez’ eventual funeral had 900 in attendance, many of them from his local Adventist church. (Aghajanian, 2015b) Glendale also became the first and for a time the only congregation in the city to have funerals for people who died from AIDS. Its legacy among both local and non-local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people remains strong nearly forty years later, and the congregation today operates under the motto “Revealing Christ, Affirming All.” (Glendale City Church, n.d.)
The story of Glendale, and other communities like Kansas Ave. Adventist church in Riverside, California, which began a congregational AIDS ministry in 1996, is not the story of the wider Adventist denomination. (Wright, 2008; Bull and Lockhart, 2006) The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists monitored the epidemic through committees from 1987 onward, but did not move to actively coordinate local ministries to people living with HIV or AIDS until more than twenty years after 1981. (See Lawson, 2008) By the end of the 1990s, AIDS had become the leading cause of death in Africa and the fourth leading cause worldwide. (AVERT, 2017)
Only in 2002 did the General Conference Executive Committee vote to act through a new program they called the Adventist AIDS International Ministry [AAIM]. (Giordano & Giordano, 2016b, p. 9) AAIM’s launch coincided with the launch of PEPFAR, US President George W. Bush’s $15 billion initiative to control HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria worldwide, especially in countries with high prevalence rates. (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2017)
Today, AAIM’s mission is “to coordinate actions and resources to bring comfort, healing and hope to people infected and/or affected by HIV/AIDS, share a message of education and prevention to the general population, and present a united front in order to accomplish what our Lord Jesus Christ has commissioned each of us to do.” (Giordano & Giordano, 2016a, p. 6) This ministry is continuous with what Adventists traditionally call “medical missions.” (cf. Nichol, 1956)
So on behalf of the Adventist denomination, Oscar and Eugenia Giordano, a husband-and-wife team of doctors, accepted the call to lead AAIM and moved to South Africa from their hospital practice in Rwanda. From that new office, and with the aid of volunteer coordinators across the continent, AAIM began dismantling the lattices of public health ignorance and social stigma that undermined the church’s compassionate care for people living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the world region where 70 percent of people living with HIV are located. (Giordano & Giordano, 2016b; Oliver, 2013)
The Giordanos worked across the region until the four individuals who attended their first meeting became “hundreds” of direct service and support programs (Oliver, 2013). The ministry’s network of individuals, congregations, and clinical organizations now provides skills and job training, micro-businesses such as bakeries and seamstress work, as well as clinical services with an engagement-and-evangelism strategy rooted in concern for the Other and “loving, compassionate care.” (Giordano & Giordano, 2016a, p. 3; Giordano & Giordano, 2016b, p. 9) AAIM’s tenth anniversary program included a multi-national meeting of 70 people, and the church’s work for people living with HIV or AIDS then spanned 26 countries.
Since the Giordanos’ retirement in 2016, what’s now a 56-nation ministry is currently headed by another husband-and-wife team, Dr. Alexis and Nellie Llaguno. (For contrast, the U.S. government’s PEPFAR operates in 60 countries at a much larger scale and with a much larger budget.) As of 2015, HIV and AIDS were no longer in the top ten global causes of death and there’s no doubt that religious organizations like AAIM have contributed to that outcome. (WHO, 2017)
As Deborah Birx, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator said at a UN prayer breakfast this year, “Faith-based organizations have been vital to the global AIDS response since the very beginning, saving and improving millions of lives. As we fast-track toward achieving epidemic control, the powerful leadership and unique reach of the faith community is as important as ever.” (UNAIDS, 2017)
Among Adventists, that faith-based response varies by location. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) began single-nation HIV/AIDS programs the year after AAIM’s launch, and AAIM has self-identified Adventism as “one of the most accepting and compassionate denominations” for its approach to HIV and AIDS among continental Africans. (Giordano & Giordano, 2016b) AAIM itself launched even before the decriminalization of same-sex sexuality in the United States through the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Yet there’s no analogy to AAIM’s scale of service for people with HIV or AIDS in North America, where HIV and AIDS first drew widespread public attention and where the worldwide headquarters of the Adventist denomination have always been located. Why not?
At least one answer is buried in phrases like “biblical principles regarding sexuality” and “God’s ideal” for marriage and sexual expression,” which recur throughout denominational statements on HIV and AIDS. (e.g. Annual Council, n.d.; AAIM, n.d.) In 2000, Dr. Harvey Elder, one of a few dogged advocates for faith-based, compassionate service to people living with AIDS, told an Adventist News Network reporter that part of the church’s sloth and ambivalence on this issue was the perception that the disease is a moral penalty: “AIDS is generally perceived as a ‘dirty, messy’ business, which involves individuals who are ‘not our kind of people.’” (Krause, 2000) To be clear, Dr. Elder did not himself advance that view, but a number of prominent Adventist thought leaders did and still do. (cf. Lawson, 2008; Ferguson, 2010)
For example, in his 2008 book, The Cross of Christ, historian and practical theologian Dr. George R. Knight writes pointedly about sin’s consequences expressing divine anger. “The concept of God’s impersonal wrath does, it seems, have an element of truth in it. God does ‘give up’ lawbreakers of physical and moral laws to the results of their actions. Thus habitual liars create distrust toward them, and sexual profligates risk the possibility of developing AIDS.” (Knight, 2008, p. 41)
Presumably, if someone set their home on fire and ended up trapped inside, it would not interfere with the wrath of God to call the fire department and try to drag them out. After the fire had been extinguished, perhaps, investigators might explore causes and culpability, not with the sole intent of assigning blame, but perhaps also to assess future risk in order to mitigate it with, say, sprinklers or gas stove training. When applied to people deemed ‘sexual profligates,’ however, the divine judgment theology that Knight proposed wouldn’t even inspire a call to first responders.
Yet Knight’s comments contradict the denomination’s own guidelines on AIDS. According to the General Conference Executive Committee’s June 1990 statement, Adventists are to “separate the disease from the issue of morality, demonstrating a compassionate, positive attitude toward persons with AIDS, offering acceptance and love, and providing for their physical and spiritual needs.” (General Conference, 1990; cf. Guy, 1987) The nonjudgmental compassion recommended in that statement is the attitude that Dr. Elder and his colleague Dr. Gary Hopkins have brought to health and HIV/AIDS advocacy within the Adventist global community. A theology of engaged compassion, not passive wrath, was what inspired both the 2000 study committee and the formation of AAIM two to four years later. Dr. Hopkins framed his position in terms of Christian moral ethics and the church learning to imitate Christ in its dealings with the vulnerable: “AIDS is the leprosy of today,” he told ANN. “And where we have tended to step back, Jesus would be stepping forward.” (Krause, 2000)
Dr. Allan Handysides, a Maryland-based gynecologist who did double duty at the denomination’s General Conference as director of Adventist Health Ministries, advocated for “stepping forward” into the compassionate care of sick people regardless of their conditions for his entire career, and his successor, Dr. Peter Landless participated in the General Conference’s 2014 conference on gender and sexuality, “In God’s Image,” which included presumptively heterosexual theologians, clinicians, and other church workers discussing the identities, experiences, and relationships of LGBTI people. (Adventist Review/ANN Staff, 2014; ANN Staff, 2013) While Landless was one of the few presenters whose summit presentation was summarized in the official church paper, Handysides has been credited with prompting General Conference officials to dedicate attention to the HIV and AIDS pandemic across Africa. (Giordano & Giordano, 2016b)
Sadly, the clinicians’ ethic of care came decades too late for a generation of gay Adventists isolated by their church’s moral condemnation and then decimated by the first twenty years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. For many survivors, that period is a deeply traumatic memory of burying friends and nursing others while dealing with a “repelling, rejecting, and—to say the least—avoidant denomination.” (McKenzie, 2016) After reviewing perhaps the only AIDS quilt in the world to memorialize Seventh-day Adventists last year, I wrote, “When the church wasn’t ‘family’ for them, they were family for each other.” (ibid; see also Elliott, 2015) That generation of LGBTI Adventists suffered immensely and unnecessarily when church leaders’ opinions about their sexual orientation meant that a deepening public health crisis remained off the denomination’s mission targets and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Global North exploded into millions worldwide.
A second answer to the question of selective Adventist responsiveness to people living with HIV or AIDS is related to the denomination’s evolving membership demographics. In 1981, when the U.S. crisis began, the North American Division (NAD) had almost 623,000 members. Today, its 1.2 million members represent just 6 percent of the global Adventist population. By contrast, more than 45 percent the new Adventists who joined the church last year did so in divisions that serve sub-Saharan Africa. (West-Central Africa [WAD], East-Central Africa [EAD], and Southern Africa-Indian Ocean [SID] divisions.) These regions of the world church hold almost 8 million members and are growing exponentially. (Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 2017; Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, n.d.) The denomination’s “Division” units were reorganized in 2003 and current statistical reports do not allow for direct division-to-division membership comparisons prior to that year.
Back in 1995, however, when Dr. Elder addressed the San Diego Adventist Forum with the startling title “The Seventh-day Adventist Church has AIDS,” he made this assessment: “In countries where the Seventh-day Adventist Church has the most baptisms, this epidemic is exploding. Many young church workers are brands, plucked for the burning, individuals who had high risk behaviors. They near readiness for ordination toward the end of the latency of their HIV infection! For many, ordination and AIDS will occur the same year.” (Elder, 1995)
In regions where the denomination faced both exponential growth and an expanding HIV/AIDS pandemic among new members, women and children, its medical missions heritage has kicked in, and it has found the motivation to act in the name of public health and the wholeness of humankind. Church medics in Lesotho have centered in their ministry’s communications a statement that church co-founder Ellen G. White made in 1901: “Medical missionary work brings to humanity the gospel of release from suffering. … It is the pioneer work of the gospel. It is the gospel practiced, the compassion of Christ revealed.” (White, Maluti Adventist Hospital, n.d.) Their ministry is explicitly theologized, and not simply an expression or extension of their professional medical ethics.
But the “release from suffering” they are motivated to offer patients in Africa does not motivate comparable engagement with LGBTI people living with HIV or AIDS in the Global North. Sociologist Ronald Lawson has very thoroughly outlined this contrast in a book chapter on a church that, in his words, “has proven itself more concerned with rules and image than with the needs of its people” and has been “neither welcoming nor caring” to LGBTI people living with HIV or AIDS in the Global North. (2008, p. 3-65) Moral disgust such as that quoted from George Knight blocks even medical missions incredibly well. (McKenzie, 2015)
As Richard Beck explains in his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, “Whenever the church speaks of love or holiness, the psychology of disgust is present and operative, often affecting the experience of the church in ways that lead to befuddlement, conflict, and missional failure” (p. 90).
This fall, the president of Christian NGO World Relief asked, “Can you imagine the day when the chapter on AIDS is closed and a new chapter is written?” (UNAIDS, 2017)
I can. And I wonder if the Seventh-day Adventist Church will dare to imagine too—not just in regions where the majority of seropositive people are heterosexual, but also in parts of the world where LGBT+ youth and adults can slide into church pews beside graceful grandmothers and disclose their experience, their trust in God, and their faith in the kind of spiritual community that heals.
Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD, is a principal with McKenzie Consulting Group and works with nonprofit clients in the United States and internationally. She is a member of the governing board of the Adventist Today Foundation, the publisher of Adventist Today media. The first part of her presentations can be read here.
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