Magic Johnson, HIV/AIDS and No Denial

AIDS 2012 BannerThe AIDS 2012 Conference will be taking place in Washington, D.C., from July 22-27. In anticipation of this gathering that will connect AIDS experts from around the world, PBS’ Frontline aired a program this week on the disease, specifically as it has affected African Americans.

You may imagine that Magic Johnson and his famous admission in 1991 of his infection with the disease was featured prominently in the documentary.

Magic Johnson’s role in publically speaking out about AIDS and also identifying himself as a person living with HIV brought me back to conversations I had with women during time spent in Kenya with Food for the Hungry (FH).

Acceptance and HIV+ Women in Kenya

Kenyan Women's Parade to Celebrate Clinic Opening

Women in northern Kenya (not necessarily HIV+) parade through Marsabit town to celebrate the opening of a clinic for treating HIV/AIDS. One sign carried in the parade read "VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) available. Know your status."

These women who lived in poor, rural parts of Kenya and were also living with HIV, repeated a common sentiment. They said, “We have to accept our status” –meaning that they had to accept the fact that they were infected with the HIV virus. I heard this over and over again. I knew that the way they were approaching the situation was due to the teaching and guidance they had received from FH-Kenya health staff.

But, accept??…Come on! I thought. The whole idea hit a nerve with me. There is something that comes with partnering with an organization like FH that means we all want to change the world, not accept the way things are!

However, once I moved passed my initial gut-level response, I began to understand the value of how the FH staff in Kenya were serving these women.

No Denial

Clara Robe, FH-Kenya staff

Clara Robe serves on the FH-Kenya staff and works with communities daily to prevent the spread of HIV and help people who live with the disease.

The FH-Kenya staff were not encouraging complacency, rather they were leading these women to understand that they cannot live in denial. If they try to deny that they have the HIV virus, the destruction caused by this disease will only be multiplied exponentially in their lives and the lives of the people around them.

This is what Magic Johnson also reflected when he spoke out.

Shame, Real and Imagined

HIV/AIDS is a disease that involves shame and disgrace, as well as death. Often it is sexually transmitted. Many times, misunderstandings about how the virus is passed complicate the stigma of HIV even further. This was true for Magic Johnson and it has been true for the women I visited with in Kenya.

An important step in the lives of people living with HIV is to accept their status—and not live in denial. In this way they can protect themselves (with proper treatment which greatly prolongs life) and protect others. Yet shame and fear of rejection is powerful. From a Christian perspective, AIDS can be address holistically—keeping in view the whole person—physical, emotional, spiritual, relational. The good news is that whatever shame that is associated (whether real or imagined) can be covered with the blood of Jesus.

Don’t We All—At Times—Live in Denial?

Are the dangers of denial when it comes to HIV really so different than the perils of denial we all live in at times? Every Sunday at my church we try to come clean and accept, rather than deny. We pray:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

In a sense, we accept our status. And by doing that we can find a road to healing.

I’ve realized that what these Kenyan women were doing, in accepting, was brave. It was the beginning of healing…for themselves, for their children, for their communities. May I be so brave.

As a final note: Food for the Hungry U.S. President Dave Evans will be speaking at “The Summit on the Role of the Christian Faith Community in Global Health and HIV/AIDS” at Georgetown University on July 25. We’ll be reporting on that. Stay tuned for more!

About Eileen O'Gorman

Sometimes I think I am incessant middle child. I find myself in the middle of things a lot. Right now, in particular with my work in communication for Food for the Hungry, I find myself in the middle—maybe a bridge builder—between “worlds.” However, what seems like many worlds all occupying one planet, is actually one grand world that God created. I just can’t get a handle on that! Mostly I hope that my work helps bring reconciliation in this world and that, by grace, we can see good things happening – on earth as it is in heaven.

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