Florida ranked first among the 50 states in the number of HIV diagnoses in 2013, and despite the lingering stigma associated with the disease, one ministry is providing an Oasis for those impacted by the disease.
According to Aids.gov (2016), over 12 million people in the United States are living with HIV and about 1 in 8 or 12.8 percent do not realize they have it. The incidence of HIV infection has remained somewhat consistent with approximately 50,000 new cases diagnosed per year. Approximately 1 in 4 or 25 percent of those new infections are among youth age 13-24, and most of them do not know they have it and are not getting treatment. As a result, they are more likely to unknowingly pass the virus along to others.
Men having sex with men (MSM) of all ethnicities and races remain the demographic with the highest incidence of HIV. In 2010, the estimated number of new HIV infections among MSM was 29,800, a significant 12 percent increase from the 26,700 new infections among MSM in 2008.
In 2013, an estimated 5,364 adults and adolescents were diagnosed with HIV in Florida, ranking Florida first among the states in the number of HIV diagnoses. Among high school students in Florida during that same year, 48.2 percent reported having had sexual intercourse and 64.3 percent did not use a condom during last sexual intercourse.
HIV and the Church
Why should the church care about HIV? There are seemingly endless issues in our community to address. First, as people of faith, Jesus provides us a model for how to relate to the sick. He not only healed those who were outcasts and carried a societal stigma, but he cared for them and pointed them to God’s love, grace and righteousness. In Jesus’ day, those with leprosy were seen to have committed an unconfessed sin that led to their illness. He didn’t ask them how they became sick; He asked how He could help them. We know that many, but certainly not all, living with AIDS may have put themselves at risk through risky behavior, but Jesus doesn’t call us to stand back and judge. Rather he models a response that heals, guides and loves.
Sonia Amador, co-leader of the Oasis Ministry at Calvary Chapel Ft Lauderdale, which serves people that are infected with HIV and affected by HIV, says the most important part of her ministry to people with HIV is “to treat them as a human being.” She has noticed “a big stigma (associated with HIV/AIDS) in the community, even among Christians, because people do not know a lot about the virus and how people can become infected.” She discussed the pressing need that exists for people to become educated. Sonia and her husband Angel both co-lead the group under the leadership of Yvonne Wind-Vasquez, a physician assistant who specializes in HIV/AIDS education and treatment.
In an effort to educate young people about HIV and AIDS, the leadership team has attended youth group sessions to increase awareness. Amador notes, “Broward County has a high incidence of teenagers with HIV and what are we doing about it? It only takes one time to get together with someone with HIV who got it from someone else one time and doesn’t’ know they have it. It only takes once. Education is priority number one.”
The Oasis ministry offers ongoing support for those infected and affected by HIV. They have a Facebook group to create a sense of community and share updates and resources. Additionally, those involved in the ministry meet once a month, generally on a Friday evening. Amador notes, “It’s rewarding for me to just be there for those involved in the ministry and offer encouragement and hope in Jesus Christ. Most are not able to open up to anyone else because of the likelihood that they will be labeled and rejected.” As a result, of the shame and fear that many living with HIV experience, Oasis is diligent about promoting a sense of anonymity and confidentiality regarding what is shared in groups and personal discussions.
The ministry used to offer free HIV testing, but it can be costly and there are numerous locations throughout Florida to get free testing. Now, they focus on providing support, resources, and a sense of family for those who are living with HIV or AIDS. Amador notes, “it [Oasis] is different than going to the health department. I take the time to listen…listen to their heart, to let them cry, and to be there for them in a time of crisis. I also look for ways to connect them to the men’s ministry, or biblical counseling or other local or community resources to address their specific needs.” Her heart is to serve people in need and she notes, “we serve anyone regardless of their color, religion, or anything else.”
The leaders also follow up with members on a regular basis to check on how they are doing. “We see each other in church, and we stay connected and support one another. They (the individuals in the ministry) become part of your family.” For more information or to get involved in Oasis, email Sonia Amador at [email protected] or Angel Amador at [email protected]
Resources for Starting a HIV/AIDS Church Ministry
The church can play a pivotal role in addressing HIV and AIDS in our community. If you feel called to start a ministry in your church, there are resources to help you get started. Saddleback Community Church, among others, is a leader in addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in our country. They have developed a comprehensive ministry called the HIV & AIDS Initiative. The website provides clear step-by-step ways to develop an outreach program with biblical support and numerous examples. For more information, go to www.hivaidsinitiative.com/initiative/howwedoit/, email [email protected] or call 949-609-8555.
Finally, the Scepter Institute has created the AIDS & Your Church Manual to help pastors and lay people develop a policy and procedures. This 144-page book includes policy statements and procedures from dozens of ministries that have already gone through the process.
In addition to the resources offered above, you might want to take advantage of upcoming awareness days such as the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on February 7, 2016, or the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on March 10, 2016. Resources for hosting both of these days are at www.aids.gov/news-and-events/awareness-days/black/ and www.aids.gov/news-and-events/awareness-days/women-and-girls/.
Terry Morrow, Ph.D. is the president of Morrow and Associates Partnership for Leadership and Transformation. She is an assistant dean and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at [email protected]