Stigma 2012

votive candles in the foreground with christ on the cross on the wall in the background; taken at historical basilaca

Today is World AIDS Day. A day the world focuses on the need to address this worldwide health issue. Its not an easy topic to address because so many people would rather not talk about it. Ignoring something does not make it go away; it only makes it dark and secret and that much more scary. HIV/AIDS remains perhaps one the greatest social taboos we have to address. And perhaps this year that is what we must focus on in our fight against HIV/AIDS. Continue the struggle to find a scientific medical cure, yes. Continue to foster the prevention of HIV infections. Continue to pray for peace from the social, financial, emotional, and other impacts that this disease brings to so many–whether they experience the illness themselves or are in relationship with someone who does.

All people are subject to stigma, in a whole variety of ways. What we often forget is that stigma and the negative impact it carries is one of the most damaging experiences an individual can encounter, but it is also the one experience that we as human beings have the most control over. Stigma is our attitude nothing more and nothing less. We can decide to change it and it is done–and it costs no money, only human will.

As a hospice chaplain, I have come to learn where many of the public restrooms in my community are. I sometimes have to stop there as I move through my day. I have even learned which public bathrooms supply soap and where I need to bring my soap in with me. Many of us maybe surprised to find how clean our park restrooms really are.  A month or so ago I stopped at a small park to use the restroom. I noticed on the wall of the stall scratched into the paint the words “Kim has AIDS”. I have no idea who Kim is, if this is true, or a just a kid’s prank. But it made me think. First I thought eww is this bathroom clean enough to use? Then I thought who are the people who come in here to who would need to graffiti this?  In just a few moments I recalled that World AIDS Day was soon approaching and wondered how I would mark it. I wondered about “Kim” if she were ok an getting the help she needed. And I realized anew how strong the power of stigma is.

Stigma can move you from no emotion on a topic to so much emotion on a topic that you want to flee, and this can happen in an instant. Because of the power of stigma, we have a choice: to embrace the HIV+/AIDS community and seek solutions with them or we can jerk away, leaving them to find solutions on their own. Jesus calls us to reach out to persons effected by stigma, he does so countless times in the gospels bringing stigmatized persons back into the fold of society, and that is the radical message of love. Jesus subverted stigma and so can we. Stigma can be not only subverted but reversed by the simple act of human will.

We are all affected by stigma. I am not perfect–on some level wondering if the bathroom was clean enough to use after seeing the graffiti on the bathroom wall was a reaction of my own internalized stigma. So this year I join the world in prayer and reflection on this World AIDS Day. I join in praying for friends who have died from the effects of AIDS, those who have been isolated by the stigma of AIDS and who die alone as a result, systems that marginalize people with HIV/AIDS, as well as friends and colleagues who live with HIV or AIDS. I pray for Kim. But this year I also pray for myself. I pray that God might grant me the grace to see stigma when I see it, to face it, and somehow turn it around. And I pray for the humanity of the world, that we might learn to change the things that we can and that we might turn our attitudes and stigmas about HIV/AIDS around so we might reach out to our brother and sisters and learn to all be one.

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