HRC Foundation is excited to work with RAHMA and its many partners as they spearhead the inaugural National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day. The goal is to rally all U.S. communities representing different faiths to take a stand against HIV and HIV-related stigma in their congregations, and raise awareness about HIV and AIDS.
HRC sat down with Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, Director of Latinx & Catholic Initiatives at the HRC Foundation, to discuss the need to address HIV in our communities and congregations.
How has faith played a role in your life?
As a Latina growing up in Puerto Rico, faith was and has been always present in my life. Faith has kept me focused and given me purpose. That is not to say I haven’t struggled with God, but I know as a Catholic that this is a normal process. For many years I practiced my faith without community, afraid of judgement and rejection. I worked around faith, helping my fellow faithful, supporting the journeys of others, but denying myself faithful community. Then, one day I realized how much I missed that community, and come to find out, things had changed! My faith community had become more supportive, and less likely to reject or be disagreeable with people they might have previously thought of as “other”. Today faith is central to my work and to my life. I’ve found community in progressive religious circles and it keeps me centered and hopeful that a better world is possible, for my faith calls me to help the marginalized, comfort the sick and assist the needy.
Places of worship have a role in addressing HIV. What ways have you seen that happen?
I have been a warrior in battling the HIV epidemic from early on. I watched in horror as many congregations denied the sick their basic dignity, but I also saw those who rose to the occasion and began caring for the sick and getting involved in prevention efforts -- even when we knew little, and could only offer spiritual solace to the dying and their families. That deep tradition continues today, as evident in so many of our open and affirming congregations that are meeting the spiritual needs of those who have been diagnosed with HIV. The need for education, stigma reduction and help with daily life -- including meeting basic needs such as food and shelter -- are still there. Places of worship can, and do, provide these services. We need to support them so they can continue supporting those who reach out to their faith community seeking not only help, but to participate as productive members of the congregation without judgement!
What advice would you give others who are attempting to address HIV in a faith setting?
The best advice I can offer is to first and foremost check your assumptions at the door. People with HIV lead productive lives and are effective members of communities and congregations. As for those who have encountered hard times, take the view of a loving god, and know not to judge from a vengeful perspective. Provide food and shelter, lend a caring ear, work outside your congregation and participate in prevention efforts. Keep a referral system that can help people navigate an already complicated system. Be ready before the need arises. Do not wait for that first congregant to come to you and ask for help but be proactive with a call from the pulpit of love and support, without judgement.
How will you observe National Faith and HIV & AIDS Awareness Day on August 27?
I’ll be joining fellow faith leaders in remembering those who we lost due to fear and ignorance, and those who are still here struggling and thriving and praying that we soon see a day without HIV and AIDS. I will pray that they have access to prevention, to medication. I will pray for awareness of both those who live within our borders and beyond and are affected by this virus to find the ways to thrive and survive. I will pray for families who still fear and reject,that they find love and acceptance. I will pray for the thousands of children across the globe left behind due to lack of knowledge about HIV and AIDS.
As a person within the LGBTQ community and of faith, what is one of the core values you believe the faith community need to address HIV?
I believe as a Christian we must reassess what we truly believe when we say love and respect God and love our fellow siblings in the same way. When we do so, we recognize the humanity and vulnerability of our siblings and are able to step up and provide nurturing spaces for both the physical and spiritual needs of they need and seek.
Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera is the Religion and Faith Program’s Director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives at HRC. Before joining the organization full-time, Lisbeth worked closely with the program for two years as the National Coordinator for the A la Familia project, training and empowering Latinx throughout the country around LGBTQ issues. Lisbeth envisioned and directed “Before God: We Are All Family,” a powerful short documentary that has been shared with Latinx communities across the country. As the Director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives, Lisbeth has deepened the already impressive reach of her work with Latinx communities and has help HRC develop and implement Catholic engagement work across the organization.
To learn more about National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, visit www.faithaidsday.com.
To learn more about the Human RIghts Campaign's work on these issues, visit www.hrc.org.