What Would Jesus Say to This

Rev. Joseph A. C. Smith, M. Div Alfred Street Baptist Church ©2011

Two years ago, I got a call from a ministry colleague in North Carolina: “Man my mom has HIV. The doctors say she’s had it for 15 years unbeknownst to her.” Four weeks later, while on a ministry assignment in California, another fellow clergyman had been in a heated argument with his spouse and after seeking my advice couldn’t quite find the right words: “Dude… Man. I … I don’t know... Man, I really don’t know how to tell you; but, I have HIV.” Fast forward to Christmas 2010, I was home in Mississippi and the phone rang. It was a childhood friend and worship leader extraordinaire, who after about 40 minutes of catch-up convo, finally made her way around to why she’d “really called”: "I’m not sure if you know this, but me and my sister have HIV. We’re probably moving to Atlanta to take advantage of a program there that will help us gets meds. Pray for my mom because she is really going through it."

What was not clear to me then, but is almost crystal clear to me now is that all of these “confessions” have one underlying commonality: they all emerge from the pews, pulpits, & choir lofts of churches throughout the country – not from reality TV or crack houses or brothels. No, these are the stories of the faithful – those tasked with ministering to God’s people week after week. These are the stories of men and women who have been in church all of their lives and, though their collective experience represents more than a century of attending and serving in church, when asked if they’d ever heard a sermon, attended a service, seen an altar call, or even heard a prayer that mentioned or addressed HIV in church, a resounding “NO” resulted.

What is sad, but true about many predominantly African American churches is that for years HIV has quietly and persistently invaded our ranks and for years we’ve chosen to turn a blind eye or propagated stigmas and stereotypes of people living with the virus. Even when we were confidently sure that a pastor, deacon or other church member had died from the virus, we cowardly tucked our tails and touted the cause of death as “cancer” or something bizarre like an unknown gastrointestinal disorder. Some have even gone as far as making public announcements at funeral services that the deceased “did not die of AIDS” in an attempt at stain-proofing one’s legacy within the community. And I can’t forget the classic “but for the grace of God that could have been me” type comments, which suggest that those who’ve contracted HIV were in a place or situation that God’s grace was not present ( if such a place or situation exists, then my understanding of grace is totally shot.)

What would Jesus say to this? Would he find churches filled with people “ashamed to own him” in work and witness around the cause of HIV? Would the man who spent much of his life countering the stigmas and stereotypes that placed people within the margins of society be pleased to learn that though His beloved church has taken two steps forward in numbers and notoriety, we’ve taken four steps back in care and compassion to those individuals living with HIV? What would Jesus say to this?

“If any of you is embarrassed with me and the way I'm leading you, know that the Son of Man will be far more embarrassed with you when he arrives in all his splendor in company with the Father and the holy angels.” ~ Luke 9:26 (MSG)