US Lutheran bishops take HIV tests to combat stigma

By Ecumenical News International
March 16, 2009

Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have joined African religious leaders in publicly undergoing testing to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, and to end a legacy of church stigma and silence about the subject - writes Chris Herlinger.

"We in the US tend to think of this as a global pandemic unrelated to people in the United States," [the] Rev Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, said at the church's national headquarters in Chicago earlier this month.

"For me, as a married heterosexual man, to be tested is a reminder that all communities are affected, if not infected."

Hanson said joining African religious leaders in being tested would send a strong message about lessening the stigma of HIV and AIDS.

The three-minute tests, conducted by staff of the Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago, are part of efforts to encourage ELCA members and other Lutherans in the United States and elsewhere to be tested, and to know their HIV status.

The results of the tests, conducted while the 67-member ELCA Conference of Bishops met during 5 to 10 March meetings at the church's offices, will remain confidential.

Hanson, who also serves as president of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation, said the example of taking the tests came from religious leaders in Africa, who had been tested publicly as part of continuing educational and advocacy efforts there.

The 4.7 million-member ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, will discuss a new denominational strategy and initiative on HIV and AIDS at its two yearly assembly later in 2009.

When the testing for the bishops was announced last year, Paul Stumme-Diers, the ELCA bishop for Greater Milwaukee, said the denomination, "wanted to do something concrete to help amplify that [new] initiative."

"Part of the message of doing this is to remind people of both the importance of being tested for HIV and AIDS, and the confidentiality that surrounds that whole process," Stumme-Diers said. "That way, it's more inviting for people to participate in that, and it ensures the health and welfare of society when those confidentialities are kept."

According to a 2008 United Nations report, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV in North America. The global total of those believed to be living with HIV is about 33 million.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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