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(Excerpted from Eradicating Global Poverty: A Christian Study Guide on the Millennium Development Goals, Page 34.)

The extent of human suffering brought about by the global HIV/AIDS pandemic has rarely been seen before in the history of the world. HIV/AIDS is increasingly a disease of the young and the most vulnerable, particularly girls. AIDS has orphaned 14 million children and left millions more extremely vulnerable. Statistics available from 2002 show that 720,000 babies became infected with the virus during the mother's pregnancy, during birth or through breastfeeding.

The scourge of AIDS is not unlike the group of diseases known to ancient peoples as leprosy. Like AIDS, leprosy was associated with poverty, stigma and uncleanness; it marked the sufferer as one to be marginalized, cast aside by the community. Fear of contagion and the social isolation of disease meant one's friends, neighbors and even family averted their eyes and kept their distance just when help and support were needed most.

In Jesus' time lepers lived separately from the community in a kind of quarantine but without any care or support from the community. They were cast out and shunned, The disease was contagious, so the community was protecting itself, but the cost borne by the sufferers was enormous. Not only were they ill and prohibited from earning a living, but they also were cut off from the normal social systems of support and identity that would have been available to others.

South African theologian Denise Ackerman asks, "What does it mean to confess to being the 'one holy, catholic, and apostolic church' in the midst of the 'bleak immensity' of the HIV/AIDS crisis?" She suggests:

If we are truly one, we are the church with HIV/AIDS. People living with HIV/AIDS are found in every . . . religious denomination. We are all related; what affects one member of the Body of Christ affects us all. We are all living with HIV/AIDS. There is no "us" and no "them." We dare not forget that inclusion, not exclusion, is the way of grace. If we are holy, we are not living some superhuman mode of existence . . . Holiness is not withdrawal from the smell of crisis, sickness, or poverty, but engagement, often risky, in situations where God is present. If we are catholic, we are in solidarity because we are connected, in communion, with those who are suffering and who experience fear of rejection, poverty and death. If we are apostolic, we stand in continuity with the church in its infancy . . . This means that we are zealous for the Word, and that we continuously examine the ideals of the early church and measure ourselves against them. This is nothing new. It is simply a call to put the words of the creed into practice.

Inclusion, engagement, connectedness and continuity -- these are the values Ackerman calls the church to live out as it lives with AIDS.

How did Jesus respond to a sufferer of a deadline and stigmatizing disease? As we see in Luke 5:12-14. quoted at the beginning of this session, we see that Jesus included the leper, engaged him, connected with him and brought him back into the continuity of their shared tradition.

Jesus included the leper by accepting the leper's request to be in relationship. "If you choose," beseeched the leper; "Yes, I do choose," said Jesus. Jesus engaged the leper by stretching out his hand. He actively reached toward him, closing the physical distance by his action. Jesus connected to the leper by touching him, shocking the leper and Jesus' followers alike, and violating the norms of their shared culture. Jesus brought the leper back into continuity with their community by telling him to abide in their tradition's requirements and so return to life in community.

This story gives us an image of what it might mean to be the church with HIV/AIDS. If we follow Jesus' example we will be inclusive, engaged, connected and in continuity.

Eradicating Global Poverty:
A Christian Study Guide on the Millennium Development Goals
64 pages, Friendship Press,

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