Guest blog with Richard Carson, from ACET (AIDS Care, Education and Training)
"The true light that gives light to everyone was coming...” John 1:9
A couple of years ago, a Garda was awarded €100,000 in damages in part because of the stress and anxiety caused by having been spat in the face by someone they were arresting during an altercation. The fear of HIV infection, while short-lived, had informed part of the award. The judge, in related expert advice, was told that the likelihood of transmission was “as likely as being struck by an asteroid."
In both Mark’s and John’s gospels there are other stories of spit and human interactions. Jesus meets and heals a deaf man (Mark 7), a blind man (Mark 8 ) and a man born blind (John 9), using his saliva as his medicine, as was common practice at the time. These stories are everything that is the opposite of our earlier story. They are rich with patience, process, trust, freedom and shalom. There is no stigma. In fact there is the overcoming of existing stigma through intimacy, touch and embrace.
For over 23 years our work in ACET has found its home somewhere between these two stories, operating in a world where HIV-related stigma is profound and resilient while being resourced by the promise of a day when shalom consumes stigma forever.
Globally we have turned a corner. The number of new HIV infections is dropping and more and more people are getting access to drug treatments that, while not a cure, are transforming health and extending longevity to norms. Yet among certain population groups (which also tend to be those most marginalised within society) there is stagnation and little sign of change. In Ireland, 2015 will be the highest year on record for new HIV diagnoses. This is in part because of new testing initiatives but it also illustrates the need to improve prevention efforts.
So at this juncture in the story of HIV in our world how might we move forward?
I met recently with some staff from UNAIDS. Reflecting on the 30-year-old story of the pandemic and looking to the future, they commented that the response needs to rediscover its “bottom-up” origins or it will fail. HIV & AIDS has probably received more funding than any other pandemic in history and mainstreaming services is vital for a sustainable response.
However with this has come a reliance on “top-down” structures that regularly leave little room for creativity and the subversive. It is standard (some call it “best”) practice that key performance indicators must be met and value for money demonstrated. There is a whole generation of activists and practitioners who know nothing of the 1980s when responding to AIDS was to go against every grain that society could muster and responses overflowed with passion and spontaneity.
This is not a nostalgic reflection on the past nor a call to sentimentality. Rather it is a reminder that change will come from within the margins and not to them. Or at least it will come by those who, through choice or circumstance, patiently inhabit the spaces being left behind.
So we need Bethlehem and smelly stables. We need teenage nobodies and bad ass shepherds. We need the Spirit that moves in the least likely of places. Yes Jesus went to Jerusalem, the centre of religious, social and political power in the region. But he went as a Nazarene. “What good can come out of Nazareth?" was always being whispered through the streets - maybe it still is in our churches, just in a different form.
And maybe the most bottom-up of things we can do is give up our need to "make an impact” and “change the world”. While seemingly honourable, these slogans illustrate our desire for the BIG before we have learned to be faithful with the small. They reinforce the “them” and “us” divisions that we have created in our imaginations so that we can remain untarnished by those we exclude. They only compromise the fragility of presence - the most important weapon in our arsenal against a world that calls us daily to "ex-carnation."
"This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child."
~ Madeleine L’Engle, from A Cry Like a Bell: Poems
Richard Carson is the Chief Executive of ACET Ireland. ACET (AIDS Care Education & Training) operates a range of projects that seek to improve the lives of those living with and affected by HIV in Ireland while also playing their part in reducing the number of new HIV infections. You can find out more about the work of ACET Ireland on their website: www.acet.ie or follow them on Facebook:www.facebook.com/ACETIreland