Ulysses Burley III sits in a chair.
Dr. Ulysses Burley III

Pew Research estimates that 84% of the world’s population identifies with a faith community, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 40% of health care services in low- and middle-income countries are provided by faith-based institutions. More specifically, faith-based institutions deliver 40% of HIV and AIDS services in sub-Saharan Africa and as much as 60% of HIV related services in other parts of the world. It’s evident that faith is interwoven into the fabric of the human experience, with health and wellness as a core value across all faiths. It’s also true, however, that different faith traditions and belief systems have acted as barriers in the HIV and AIDS response, offering judgement for people living with HIV, and earning the faith community a legacy of perpetuating stigma and discrimination against vulnerable key populations.

At the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s and early 90s, houses of worship were often the final resting place for people who had died from HIV related illness, a place to dignify the dead where they were not always dignified in life. In a 1994 New York Times article titled, “Ritualizing Grief, Love and Politics; AIDS Memorial Services Evolve Into a Distinctive Gay Rite,” Tom Viola of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was quoted saying to a priest, "I'm tired of being welcome in the Catholic Church dead. Until they welcome us alive, it would be ridiculous for them to have the last word at memorial services." HIV was a death sentence then, and the faith community had gotten good at welcoming people dying with HIV.

However, the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) changed the course of the pandemic such that death no longer had the last word. Neither did faith communities that found purpose in HIV death but struggled to identify its role among people living with HIV thanks to science and medicine – as if God required something more of us than to extend compassion, grace, dignity, and love to our neighbor. Professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor. Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.”

The good news is that just as the HIV epidemic experienced a biomedical renaissance that shifted the course, more and more people of faith and goodwill have come to share Professor Taylor’s sentiments, understanding that HIV is no longer just about viral load and T-cells. HIV/AIDS is a social justice imperative about poverty, systemic racism, LGBTQIA discrimination, gender inequality, substance use disorders, mass incarceration, political propaganda, and stigma, and these ills can't be cured in a laboratory or hospital. They can, however, be cured in places of worship, family households, the workplace , and in community. Today, HIV and AIDS are as much a moral mandate as they are a medical one, and no people are better suited to respond to the moral and medical mandate to end HIV than people of faith.

Faith communities around the world are actively building bridges of collaboration with each other, and with government, civil society, academia, and marginalized populations, to combat HIV. And with collaboration comes the perception that faith and religious communities are only a part of the problem and not the solution. Over the years, initiatives like the Interfaith Health Platform emerged as a multi-religious collaborative space for capacity building, awareness raising, and joint advocacy among faith groups, organizations and communities engaged in HIV and AIDS. It offers access to best practices and resources developed by faith groups, and documents and shares the impact of faith models for a more effective HIV response, including under the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other global commitments to action by faith communities include the 13 MILLION CAMPAIGN that is engaging faith leaders, individuals, and communities to promote access to health services to the 13 million children, women and men living with HIV who are not yet on antiretroviral treatment. Within the United States, Christians and other faith partners have coalesced to form the U.S. HIV Faith Coalition and establish National Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day that encourage faith communities to work together on HIV and AIDS education, prevention, treatment, care and support, and to reduce and eliminate stigma and discrimination. Most recently, faith communities at the forefront of HIV advocacy have been key in the implementation and execution of community engagement strategies as it relates to COVID-19 and vaccine education in vulnerable populations.

Perhaps the most important role of faith positive communities in the HIV response has been the reconciling of sacred-spaces for healing through storytelling that centers the lived experiences of people most impacted by the epidemic who once-upon-a-time could not share in those spaces and feel safe. Whereas the statistics of science inform, stories have the ability to transform; it’s this transition from the transactional to the transformational that can really serve as a balm in Gilead. Stories increase awareness, awareness builds empathy, and empathy is the tie that binds us together.

If the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to stay apart, the way out of the HIV pandemic is to stay together. The intersectionality of this disease means that we can curb HIV illness by fighting all manner of social ills, if we can just manage to do it together. We have all the science and medicine we need to end the HIV epidemic as a public health crisis. What we need now, more than ever, is to treat people and not just disease — and there are no group of people better poised to lead the charge in humanizing the next iteration of the response than the faithful.