AIDS: A Call to Compassion
1987 Church of the Brethren Statement
The purpose of this statement is to call the Church of the Brethren to compassionate care for persons with AIDS, their families and friends. This statement does not seek to engage in a comprehensive study of lifestyle choices or sexual behavior. The committee believes the denomination has adequately addressed those issues in two previous Annual Conference Statements, “Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective” (1983) and “Christian Lifestyle” (1980).
A new plague is appearing upon the face of the earth. It is a plague of epidemic proportions affecting the lives of men, women, and children on all continents. The epidemic is spreading rapidly. It is devastating certain populations and affecting the lives of many people not directly contracting the disease. This worldwide epidemic is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
In the United States alone more than 30,000 people have been diagnosed with AIDS since 1981, with the death toll exceeding 16,000 (as of December 26, 1986). One and one-half million people now carry the AIDS virus, ninety percent of whom are undetected.1 Of these at least twenty percent will develop the disease. The fatality rate approaches eighty percent within two to three years of diagnosis. Among children contracting AIDS (during birth with affected mothers), the death rate within six months of the onset of illness is almost seventy percent.2 Published AIDS statistics project 108,000 deaths and 270,000 cases over the next five years.3
The World Health Organization refers to AIDS as “a disease of global proportions.” In one eleven-nation area of Africa, 50,000 people have died from the disease since its first confirmed appearance in the late 1970s. Some researchers estimate that as many as five million Africans are now carriers of the AIDS virus.4 Thousands of cases have been reported in Western Europe. The United Kingdom, France, and Holland have launched massive educational efforts aimed at containing the spread of the disease.
AIDS is a medical condition characterized by a breakdown in the body’s natural immunity against disease. It is caused by a virus. People who have AIDS are vulnerable to illnesses or infections that are not otherwise a threat to a normally functioning immune system.5
There is no evidence that AIDS is spread through everyday social or familial contact. AIDS is transmitted by intimate sexual contact, injection with infected blood, contaminated needles associated with drug abuse, and during birth from an infected mother to her fetus. Fear of the disease and prejudice against those who have AIDS are widespread because of confusion, ignorance, and distrust of known facts about its transmission.6
The AIDS virus is particularly devastating because it continually changes its structure making it treatment ineffective. No cure, vaccine, or totally reliable diagnostic tests for the disease have thus far been developed.
In the United States, AIDS was first diagnosed among the male homosexual and bisexual population. Public attention has focussed primarily on the spread of the disease among gay men, who currently represent seventy-three percent of the reported cases. Recent statistics (1986), however, indicate an increase in the percentage of cases in the heterosexual population. Research also indicates that heterosexual adolescents and young adults are increasing their risk to AIDS exposure. This is in part because of casual attitudes about sexual relationships, denial that the disease could be contracted by them, and embarrassment over taking the necessary precautions.7 Within the next five years, the Center for Disease Control projects that the ratio of men to women with AIDS may be one-to one, as has already become the situation in Africa. The disease currently affects marginalized racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Eighty percent of children with AIDS are black and Hispanic.8
Members of the Church of the Brethren are being called upon to help persons with AIDS, their families, and friends. Health care and social workers are being asked for professional services. Pastors are being sought out for counseling, for spiritual guidance and for activating a network of community support. Educators and members of the legal profession are being challenged to offer ethical and moral guidance. What does the Church of the Brethren have to say about this newest epidemic that devastates the body, mind, and spirit of so many?
If we look to the New Testament to guide our response, we find that illness is viewed in more than one way. At times illness is seen as resulting from God’s judgement on sin (cf.1 Cor. 11:29-32; James 5:14-16). At other times, however, there is no apparent link between sin and illness, and at least one New Testament story warns against assuming such a link. We read in John 9:1-3. “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered ‘It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”
Whatever the causes that contribute to human illness, our Christian response to illness must be one of compassionate care. As followers of Jesus, and as members of the Church of the Brethren, we are called to be about the ministry of healing.
TO ENCOURAGE healing and compassionate care to people affected by AIDS, the 1987 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren recommends that:
- Congregations and individual members become informed about AIDS in order to (a) help reduce fears concerning the disease and persons with AIDS, and (b) understand appropriate methods of AIDS protection and prevention.
- Congregations and individuals explore prayerfully the faith issues raised by the AIDS epidemic through (a) affirmation of sexual relations within the marriage covenant, and (b) lifting up the values of a wholistic lifestyle free from substance abuse.
- Congregations and individual members become involved in direct care for persons with AIDS, care for the affected families and friends, and the giving of spiritual support through the healing ministries of visitation , counseling, anointing, and in other appropriate ways to promote wholeness and acceptance.
- Congregations and individual members assist in the development of financial, medical, and legal resources in the local community for persons with AIDS. If such resources are not available, congregations may consider some level of direct support.
- Congregations and individual members speak out boldly concerning discrimination against persons with AIDS. While observing necessary precautions to public health, the civil and human rights of those with AIDS must be protected and respected.
- Congregations and individual members encourage adequate funding for AIDS research and the public dissemination of accurate information. Such information may be channeled through the mass media, public schools, community forums, and within local church settings with special attention directed at those groups at highest risk.
- Congregations and individual members in ministry to persons with AIDS be supported through a coordinated network of district and denominational health and welfare representatives.
- Church related health and welfare institutions (such as day care centers, soup kitchens, long-term care facilities and nursing homes) consider the special needs of persons with AIDS and respond to those needs with appropriate institutional resources
- Congregations are urged to cooperate with other religious and community groups in affording a caring ministry to both the victims and families of those stricken by AIDS.
A health crisis of enormous proportions faces the church and the world. Denial and prejudice only serve to make the crisis worse. In the face of this reality the church and its people are called to be a community of healing hope and compassion.
Action of the Brethren Health and Welfare Association Committee at its November 22, 1986 board meeting: Approved the recommendation by the Executive Committee to form a committee to writ e a resolution on AIDS with a focus on “call to Compassion.” Jay Gibble and James Kipps were to form the committee which was composed of the following persons: James Kipp (Chair), Mary Ann Harvey, Tana Durnbaugh, Joe Kochansky, Dennis Rupel, Ralph Warkins, and Jay Gibble, (staff).
Action of the General Board, March 1987: The General board approved the Statement on AIDS and directed that it be passed to the 1987 Annual Conference through Standing Committee.
Philip C. Stone, Chair
Donald E. Miller, General Secretary
Action of the 1987 Annual Conference: Albert Gray a Standing Committee delegate from the district of Northern Ohio, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the 1987 Annual Conference approve the Statement, A CALL TO COMPASSION. The delegates approved the statement with one amendment which is incorporated in the preceding wording of the text.
1. “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” Center for Disease Control, December 26, 1986.
2. “Resolution on the Churches’ Response to the AIDS Crisis,” Governing Board of the National Council of Churches in Christ in the US, May 22, 1986, p.1.
3. “Africa in the Plague Years,” Newsweek, November 24, 1986, p.30.
4. “Africa in the Plague Years,” p.44.
5. “Resolution on the Churches’ Response to the AIDS crisis,” p.1.
6. “The Church as a healing Community and AIDS Crisis,” General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, April 11, 1986, p.2.
7. “Men, Women, Children, and AIDS, ” NBC White Paper, January 13, 1987.
8. “Resolution on the Churches’ Response to the AIDS Crisis,” p.2.