Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Rev. Wright's words on AIDS, in perspective

I applaud the work done by Rev. Wright’s UCC church in the Chicago community; attacking homophobia, addressing AIDS, and also for establishing recovery programs for addictions.
I am writing this diary in response to the reactions to certain statements made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which have "shocked" some readers and viewers around the nation.

Some background on me and HIV/AIDS.
I have been dealing with the AIDS epidemic since it was dubbed "GRID" (gay-related immunodeficiency disease). First as a street-activist in old my neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where we attended a trickle then a flood of the funerals of our neighbors, friends and partners, later as an anthropology student working in community AIDs research, and then as an ethnographer and applied medical anthropologist working in communities of color in both the US and Puerto Rico.

I have also worked as a priest in my own religious community doing both AIDS education and counseling.
I have been both personally affected by HIV/AIDS and have been "community" affected, in the sense that the multiple communities I belong to and support, have all been overwhelmingly impacted by the pandemic.
It is important that I discuss a bit of history to clarify why I’m not the least bit shocked by statements made by Reverend Wright.

In the early days of the epidemic, in Harlem, I was a member of a group of concerned activists attempting to get local Black and Latino ministers to discuss the situation in our own communities. They denounced and rejected us, and their own congregants who were infected or affected. Their open homophobia, along with their view of the disease of drug addiction as a "moral failing", rather than a symptom of a profound societal problem tied to IV drug use in minority communities, economic conditions, racism, an unbalanced criminal justice and sentencing system, presented an almost solid wall of denial. Most local elected politicians, taking their cue from church leaders, also refused to engage in the battle early on.

A few brave religious did respond to the call – among them Father David Kirk of Emmaus House (now deceased), and Father Luis Barrios of St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx, who subsequently lost his pastorship there for inviting local Santeros (Afro-Cuban Lukumi priests) into his church for a healing mass for families both infected and affected by the epidemic. The congregation had gathered to take communion, with consecrated bread kneaded by people with AIDS. In 1988 Father Bob Warren, of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor monastery established "Do Not Fear to Hope" meetings and retreats, but the majority of my own community religious leaders maintained a deadly silence. Or they pointed fingers of accusation at those living with AIDS with cries of "sinner" and "shame". The Bishop of Puerto Rico castigated a parishioner who wanted to use condoms with her husband, when she found out he was HIV positive. Better to die from AIDS is a paraphrase of his response. And there was no outcry except from activists.

Later, groups like the Minority Task Force on AIDs and the Latino AIDS Commission were formed, and they waged struggle with groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis who were defining the epidemic as solely affecting white men, challenging them to address the needs and concerns of blacks and Latinos with AIDS. There were also struggles around raising awareness and redefining women and HIV/AIDS, led by ACT-UP, focusing on a lack of research on women and access to treatment and early interventions, due to the then erroneous system of determination of what opportunistic infections even qualified one to get treatment.

Over the years I have listened to the voices of thousands of research participants, in multiple studies funded by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) or NIDA (National Institute of Drug Abuse) , in one-on- one interviews and via transcripts of interviews, as well as the voices of community members in local forums, community events and worship services. When asked "where does AIDs come from?" many have replied that they believe the government has a role in it. The word "genocide" is often coupled to this statement.
This is a deeply seated belief. Forget about "fact" or "fiction". People believe what they see around them. Based partially on the knowledge of the Tuskegee Experiments, where indigent syphilis sufferers were allowed to go untreated, based on the knowledge of most members of our community that pharmaceutical drug experimentation takes place in the prisons across America, based on the knowledge in the Puerto Rican community that the United States government actively encouraged the sterilization of over 1/3 of the women of Puerto Rico as part of a "population control program" and that similar programs were undertaken among Native American women on reservations, based on the clear lack of response of the US government to alleviate the epidemic world wide. Based on the control of the pharmaceutical industries of high-priced treatments not afforded to the poor. Based on how the black community viewed Katrina, and the lack of response to the suffering of the Gulf coast residents by our President and his appointees. Based on the fact that the press is paying little attention to formaldehyde FEMA trailers. Based on a non-response to Darfur.
I could go on and on with this list of "based on’s". But I hope you get my point. Many viewed Rev. Wright’s sermons as "some crazy old racist man" and are completely clueless about the role of the black church in our body politic and the style of black preaching – but I won’t address that here. Pastor Dan has addressed it in several excellent posts.

I will say that the United States Government has completed abnegated its responsibility to take leadership in the global pandemic. And so yes – the US government must share responsibility. If Reverend Wright is to be "damned" for only speaking what so many of our citizens deeply believe and fear, so be it. The question is – if there is this fear, how do we change it?

Ever wonder why huge International AIDS conferences are not held here? Because the US, among other nations is at the top of the list banning, or restricting the entry of anyone to this country who is HIV positive. Many AIDS researchers and activists are themselves infected. We do not allow immigration here, or naturalization of anyone with who is HIV positive. Period.

Contrast that with countries like Brazil who have open access, national health care, and have defied the monopoly of pharmaceutical patents, and are now distributing generic AIDS drugs to their citizens – free of charge.

Too many people in out community have watched friends and family members die due to lack of access to not only AIDS services, and support, but also housing and hospice care. GWB’s "compassionate conservatism" is not compassionate at all.

"AIDS is one of the top three causes of death for African American men aged 25–54 and for African American women aged 35–44 years in the United States of America. In the United States, African Americans make up about 47% of the total HIV-positive population and more than half of new HIV cases, despite making up only 12% of the population. African American women are 19 times more likely to contract HIV than white women" http://www.thebody.com/...

I understand, why people don’t understand the impassioned preaching of Reverend Wright. To me it is short of miraculous that he is preaching about this at all, given the long silence in our own community pulpits. The right wing religious movement, represented by some of the "spiritual advisors" surrounding John McCain, asks congregants to damn those who are gay, damn those who are poor addicts , damn those on welfare, damn those who need abortions, damn those who are HIV positive.

I ask you in all sincerity. Who IS responsible for the continued spread of AIDS?
It is not the Creator. I don’t believe God, by whatever name one chooses to call him/her has anything to do with it. The fault lies squarely with our government, and other nations who have the money and capacity to do something about it.

Let us pray that we can elect a President who will not shirk from this task. And though Senator Obama may not have been in a pew to hear that particular sermon, I am sure that he does understand the underlying "mis-ease", distrust, pain, and yes - anger that African-Americans and other community members of color have about a system that has decided to count us out.

I realize that many readers may be atheists or agnostics. And many other's of you are from churches that are quite different from those that are normal to many of us. The black community survived the trauma of slavery, reconstruction, the depression, & Jim Crow on faith. To mock our ways, to misunderstand our worship services is to be closed to difference.

Let us move on to address the economy, the War, the environment, but let us not forget that there is a deep racial divide that still separates us. I pray that Senator Obama can begin to heal that divide, as a man who straddles both worlds.

anthropologists for Obama

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