Church AIDS work makes a difference

By Linda Bloom

In rural Zimbabwe, there is not much relief—physically or emotionally—for those dying from the complications of HIV/AIDS.
But, by training nurses at United Methodist-related Mutambara Hospital and other hospitals, as well as educating volunteer community caregivers in hospice skills, the Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa is making a difference.

That project is among the 155 projects in 33 countries receiving $527,165 in grants from the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund in 2009. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) administers the fund.

The Rev. Don Messer and other members of the denomination’s Global AIDS Fund Committee are proud of that accomplishment. However, donations to the fund have dropped from a high of $977,541 in 2007 to $395,851 last year, with receipts even lower as of July 2010.

While the church alone cannot solve the HIV/AIDS crisis, Messer pointed out, its participation is essential.

Lighten the burden. The committee hopes to rejuvenate denominational interest in HIV/AIDS mission work with its third international conference on the subject. “Lighten the Burden III,” set for October 14-16 in Dallas, will offer participants the opportunity to discuss how to work “towards an AIDS-free world.”

Dallas was chosen as a way to attract participants from the Hispanic community and highlight the concern over growing HIV infection rates among Hispanic and African-American women in the United States, says Patricia Magyar, an executive with UMCOR Health.
Magyar senses a call from the denomination’s annual conferences for more educational tools to help them respond to the pandemic. Such information sharing will be part of the conference. “The hope is to re-energize and re-charge,” she added.

Messer believes the speakers—who include an African theologian, a U.N. expert, two United Methodist leaders and, possibly, the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy—“can motivate us to see that clearly we are responding from the call of Christ.”

Etta Mae Mutti, the wife of retired Bishop Fritz Mutti, also will share in a workshop session her experiences of having lost two of her three sons to AIDS.

Maureen Vetter, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Nebraska, has found inspiration from Etta Mae and Fritz Mutti, as well as the stories she heard from local caseworkers dealing with people with HIV/AIDS.

One of the denomination’s “AIDS Ambassadors” organized through the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, Vetter knows of people coping with HIV/AIDS in silence. “I feel it is time for churches to start talking about HIV/AIDS and those struggling and ways we can reach out to others,” she said.

Messer—who has attended four international AIDS conferences, including this summer’s event in Vienna—finds acceptance of church involvement. “Increasingly, there’s been an openness by AIDS activists and government officials around the world to get the faith-based groups involved,” he said.

The Vienna conference, which drew almost 20,000 people, focused on human rights, understanding the scope of the pandemic in each nation, and “marshaling the resources to meet that need,” he added.

Messer, director of the Denver-based Center for the Church and Global AIDS, believes that creating or supporting such resources is the type of action that any local church or individual member can take.

Phil DiSorbo, whose organization runs the hospice project in Zimbabwe, certainly depends on such support. “Many people would like to turn their backs on the suffering, especially in tough economic times,” he pointed out.

But “the church needs to be in the forefront,” DiSorbo declared, not only addressing HIV/AIDS, but also the social justice, health care, gender inequality, and child abuse issues related to poverty and disease.  “It’s our calling.”

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.