JACKSON, Tenn. – Dec. 12, 2005 – How does a Christian respond to the AIDS epidemic?
That’s what about 30 students who attended a Dec. 1 forum in honor of AIDS Awareness Week at Union University wanted to find out.
The forum was lead by Mark Pierce, local infectious disease specialist and former missionary to Uganda; David Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union; and Terry Blakley, associate professor of social work at Union. The three were introduced and later questioned by Andy Pettigrew, director of student ministries.
The office of campus ministries sponsored the event, which was just one of many activities during the week intended to raise awareness about the effects of AIDS. On Dec. 1, 200 students also wore orange T-shirts to recognize World AIDS day. Each T-shirt represented 15,500 people who died from AIDS in 2004 – for a total of 3.1 million people worldwide.
Students also collected money during the week for Blood:Water Mission, a group that provides safe drinking water to people living in Africa.
The forum was intended to inform students about “how catastrophic the situation of HIV/AIDS is,” said Pettigrew.
“As followers of Jesus, we have been called to a lifestyle of love, compassion, mercy and a calling to take the message of Christ to all people,” Pettigrew said. “Millions are dying all around us, and we must respond.”
Pierce offered a medical perspective on the AIDS crisis and he shared his personal experiences from living in Uganda, where the average life expectancy is 39 years.
“Nothing prepared me for the sheer number of AIDS victims,” Pierce said, reflecting on his time spent as a missionary doctor.
He also said that government spending on healthcare in Uganda is about $10 per person for an entire year and many medical facilities function without water, power or medicine.
“People often go into survival mode when faced with these conditions and they only care about themselves,” making it hard to find qualified staff members who are concerned with the situation, he said.
Blakley gave a social worker’s perspective from her time spent at the University of Miami when she worked with AIDS patients.
“AIDS includes not only physical but also emotional suffering,” she said. “The stigma that the victim is dirty, judged, untouchable — leads them to not seek medical help.”
Pierce challenged Union students to reach out, because “holiness isn’t practiced in a vacuum.”
Gushee spoke about how Christians can love people with AIDS, and he helped the students to understand some of the theological issues which are encountered when dealing with HIV/AIDS.
“This is a major economic and political issue,” Gushee said. “Being overwhelmed can lead to passivity. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”
Through increased government assistance and education, Pierce said, the African AIDS situation can be greatly improved. He encouraged students to touch the life of an AIDS victim on a local level.
Blakley also challenged students: “It is important that we see the hurting and enter the fray. Don’t be afraid to take the hands of those who feel like a leper,” she said.
The speakers gave practical advice on how students can impact the AIDS community.
“I encourage each of you to sit and talk with someone who is hurting,” Pierce said. He also recommended volunteering at the local AIDS clinic in Jackson.
Blakley emphasized church outreach programs while Gushee tackled the issue from a broader perspective, through increasing foreign aid money to Africa and supporting the empowerment of women.
By Crystal Kinser (’07)