“God Wants Me to Live a Positive Life”
(LWI/Jon Pattee) – Drums thunder and cheers soar to the ceiling of the Washington, DC, convention center, where a teeth-rattling, youth-led percussion jam gets underway at AIDS 2012.
It’s one in the afternoon in the conference’s immense Global Village, an aircraft hanger-like hall whose acres of booths and banners hum with chatter and motion.
Youth bring the buzz to this conference hall, and among the thousands of activists, leaders, and educators are Lutherans from all over the world. They are part of the throng of 20,000 that descended on Washington D.C. 22-27 July for this, the biggest global event dedicated to “turning the tide” against HIV.
“Being a teenager living with HIV, I thought it was a great opportunity to be here, to hear what other countries are doing about HIV,” says Victoria Mumbula, 18, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zambia, who also took part in the 20-21 July Interfaith Pre-Conference on HIV.
“I’ve never had the courage to disclose my status to people back home, but since the interfaith pre-conference, I’ve felt I have that courage,” she says.
“I can talk to anyone, because they’ve empowered me by talking about stigma,” says Mumbula, who came to Washington D.C. as part of a delegation of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which aims to equip a number of member church representatives to serve as key actors on AIDS in the communion.
“I’m a human being made in the image of God, and this is what God wanted me to do–to live a positive life, and I’ve learned to accept who I am through this conference.”
Hannah Ball-Brau, a D.C. resident, says the international conference is helping her put local issues in context.
“I’ve known people who’ve had AIDS and passed away from AIDS[-related illnesses], so it’s been part of my life that way, but I know I’m incredibly ignorant of the global and domestic effects,” says Ball-Brau, 18. “D.C. has huge problems with HIV, concentrated in impoverished communities and among women.”
Ball-Brau says, “I don’t know enough about treatment and prevention, and I haven’t explored the social issues that surround HIV and AIDS.” A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) delegation, she adds, “But I do consider myself a member of the global community, and a global citizen, and to be one, it’s incredibly important to learn about HIV and AIDS. “
Some of the young Lutheran delegates at AIDS 2012 are already veterans, grounding their current knowledge and action in past conferences.
“I first came as an ELCA youth delegate at the 2010 AIDS conference in Vienna, and since then, I’ve been working with the ELCA as a layperson on issues of HIV and AIDS, so that leading up to this conference I was nominated for the interfaith pre-conference local host committee,” says Ulysses Burley, 29.
“I’m a physician, but I was originally interested in cancer, and while I was still a medical student I spent a year in South America working with their AIDS foundation,” says Burley. “I saw HIV patients in the public hospital system, and it opened up my eyes in terms of a new epidemic that was impacting people on a different level, not just medically.
“I came home to the United States and realized there was an epidemic right in my own community, and the ELCA gave me a platform to address it in the African-American church and the African-American community,” says Burley, who is a Houston, Texas, native.
The education taking place at AIDS 2012 runs both ways, according to Christine Mangale, who is accompanying the ELCA and LWF delegates.
“[The delegation] has five young people and two elders,” says Mangale, who works with the Lutheran Office for World Community representing LWF and ELCA advocacy concerns at the United Nations in New York. “The young people learn from the elders because they have experience, and also for the elders, it’s a chance to hear first-hand from young people about their needs.”
Rev. Aina Sheetheni, 40, a Namibian pastor taking part in the LWF delegation as an “elder,” says: “At home, I work in congregations, and since I work with people living with HIV and their support groups, I need a lot of the information I’m getting here.
“We’re tapping into the know-how and wisdom of the young people,” says Mangale. “Everyone is there to speak on their own behalf. This intergenerational linkage is crucial.”
This approach seems to be taking hold in the larger AIDS movement, says delegation “elder” Veikko Munyika.
“In the past, in the churches, even in NGOs and governments, the focus has been on the leadership, so that the leadership can then act as multipliers, and bring all the fire and passion to the people,” says Munyika, who has coordinated HIV and AIDS work at the LWF over the past four years.
“But this time around, it seems people are saying: ‘Let’s go to the youth, the women, the marginalized, and empower them, because the change that we want will probably come from them.’”
Indeed, the young Lutherans at AIDS 2012 are poised to act when they head home.
“It’s been the tradition to make sure we [can] bring young people to the AIDS conference, which is very important because they’re key to ending this epidemic. When they go home, they work in their own communities according to an action plan,” says Mangale.
Youth delegates like Burley are already participating in meetings with pharmaceutical companies, she adds.
“The work on the AIDS conference is informing the domestic and international policy work of the ELCA advocacy department,” says Mangale. “That advocacy includes pushing for less expensive [AIDS medications] and for child-friendly medicines, especially now, when budget cuts are looming.”
In the end, however, young Lutherans at AIDS 2012 are making connections that are more about people than they are about policies.
“I feel that it’s my duty to hear what people here have to say and make sure it’s brought back into the church,” says ELCA youth delegate Jessica Erickson, 21, a Virginia resident.
“It was easy for me to agree to come to [AIDS 2012] because I assumed it wasn’t going to be emotional,” says Erickson. “But the truth is, you come to this place and you find that it’s personal, and you can’t be here as a researcher—you’re helping to tell their stories.”
(A contribution by Ecumenical Media Team member Jon Pattee)