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Bishops test for HIV as public witness Robin Russell, May 10, 2010
UMR PHOTO BY ROBIN RUSSELL
Iowa Bishop Julius Trimble volunteers to have blood drawn for HIV testing.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
COLUMBUS, Ohio—United Methodist bishops here for their spring Council of Bishops meeting May 2-7 took time to get tested for HIV as a “sign of solidarity” with those who have been affected by AIDS.
They also wanted to raise awareness about the need to eradicate diseases that are mostly associated with poverty—including AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, said West Ohio Bishop Bruce Ough.
Some 130 bishops and their spouses participated in the free tests provided May 3 by OhioHealth, a United Methodist-related health care system in central Ohio.
“We want to stand in solidarity with all who have lost lives and been orphaned by AIDS, and those who have been marginalized and live in the shadows because of living with this disease,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the council.
Retired Bishop Fritz Mutti, who heads the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, said persons who need to be tested are often afraid to be tested. In the U.S., African-American women are now the most vulnerable group at risk.
“They know that should their test come back positive, they will be judged, rejected and stigmatized,” Bishop Mutti said. “That’s why they need people who don’t have AIDS to stand in solidarity with them.
“We hope this is a message to let them know that we stand with these persons, that the church is open to you. You will not be stigmatized. You will be welcomed.”
Lab technicians from OhioHealth drew vials of blood from participating bishops, including Dallas Bishop Earl Bledsoe.
“Testing is important,” Bishop Bledsoe said, rolling his sleeve back down. “It’s painless. Taking the time to do this is the hard part. I encourage others to do it.”
Bishop Peggy Johnson said she wanted to be tested to raise awareness of the many deaf people she knows who have AIDS. There is some confusion among the non-hearing, she said, including the fact that the sign language symbol for “positive” also means “good.”
“Deaf people are two times as likely to get AIDS because they’re out of the communication loop—they’ve just missed it,” she said. “This is a marginalized group in our denomination.”
For people in the Congo, AIDS has created divisions in families and tribes, said Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo (North Katanga). Persons dying of the disease are sometimes believed to have been involved in witchcraft.
“You don’t know what HIV and AIDS is doing to my country,” Bishop Ntambo said. “Now when I go back home and say I was tested, it will be an encouragement.”
The message he will bring: that the church cares, and that AIDS is a disease that can be treated.
During the testing, members of Broad Street UMC in Columbus handed out prayer flags written by people who have AIDS or who know someone with AIDS.
Prayer flags included notes to bishops, such as “Don’t give up on us,” and written prayers that read, “I pray your hearts will be moved to justice and compassion” and “Open Doors are a welcoming sight.”
“I think it’s amazing—the bishops giving up their time to get tested,” said Broad Street member Timothy Pierce. “It’s a huge issue. People know [about getting tested], but people don’t. I think they’re scared.”
The Rev. Keith Vesper, a United Methodist elder and vice president of mission and ministry for OhioHealth, said the church must also confront the “theological lie” that AIDS is a punishment on a group of people because of one way it is transmitted.
“Unless we address that theological wounding, we haven’t done our work in spiritual healing,” he said.
Zoe Wilson, wife of retired Bishop Joe Wilson, said the testing was beneficial even to those who are not at risk for AIDS.
“Those of us who are not struggling with such problems need to be reminded that there are others who do,” she said.