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Catholics nurture AIDS ministry.

CHICAGO -- The more than 300 people who gathered at the Madonna della Strada Chapel July 23 on Loyola University's campus for a Service of Lamentation and Anointing had many reasons to grieve. Committed to ministry to HIV-positive people and to those with AIDS members of NCAN, the National Catholic AIDS Network, have watched hundreds of people die during the past 15 years of the AIDS pandemic.

As part of the Eighth Annual Catholic HIV/AIDS Ministry Conference, July 20-25, network members held a liturgy to celebrate the lives and lament the deaths of friends and family.

But some also voiced laments that reached beyond the AIDS patients, striking core issues facing the Catholic church in the United States today. Many offered laments for the church itself, claiming it often lets its members who have AIDS suffer and die alone.

For example. one speaker said his bishop had described his work in a secular organization caring for AIDS patients as "comparable to working at a soup kitchen run by the Ku Klux Klan." Another spoke of a priest infected with HIV who had been left homeless to die in the streets.

But there was also rejoicing for other responses. One participant told of a group of Augustinians on the East Coast willing to celebrate the "fullness" of the lives of three brothers who died of AIDS.

The church was not the only institution mentioned in the laments. There were laments for government policymakers -- one specifically for Bob Dole and Jesse Helms "whose hatred is being transcribed into policies that will then be translated into death."

Many NCAN conference participants said that as congressional policies threaten programs for HIV/AIDS patients, the Catholic church's responsibility to minister to this flock is growing. The church, they said, faces many internal obstacles in its HIV/AIDS ministry.

"The Catholic church wants to do this, but on it's own terms. They want to embrace AIDS, but not fully, not welcoming those living with the disease and their lovers," said Frank J. Marshall, 40, a theology instructor at the Convent and Academy of St. Vincent de Paul, a high school for girls in Savannah, Ga. He also works in an AIDS hospice.

Marshall, who was to have been ordained a priest earlier this year but opted to keep his lay status, said the church's embrace o f HIV AIDS patients is a conditional one. "As radical as the Catholic church is on social justice, they won't go all the way with this because AIDS has been so closely associated with the gay and lesbian community and with condoms."

Homophobia, he added, "is such a reality, stopping this ministry." In order for church leaders to make a full commitment to HIV/AIDS ministry, "they have to deal with their own who are dying from it, mostly gay men in the ministry," Marshall said, but "too many strings have to be pulled to just open up discussion."

Elaine Swenson, NCAN board member and public health administrator in Contra Costa, Calif., agreed that homophobia, racism and fear are keeping people from seeing the "face of God" in the AIDS pandemic. But Swenson pointed to the people gathered at the NCAN conference as a sign of hope. "These people are some of the best and the brightest in this country. They have had sight and vision for such a long time. They are the witnesses who will allow us to get beyond the crippling visions," she said.

Swenson said the move to "disassemble the public health infrastructure in this country" is "devastating for (AIDS patients) and for the needs of the community." Budget cuts, she said, will "cripple this nation's ability to respond to large groups of people in need." With economic instability growing, Swenson said, "many people are falling off the bottom, and they need the support that public health can provide." AIDS patients are on the top of this list.

People of faith, Swenson said, have "a lot of responsibility" right now. "We can no longer leave that responsibility at the end of the bus lines or across the railroad tracks," she added. "They (AIDS patients) are calling to all of us."

Helen Miramontes, 64, a registered nurse, mother of six and the deputy director for HIV/AIDS Research and Clinical Training in Nursing at the University of California in San Francisco, said urgent attention must be given to the growth of HIV/AIDS among women, especially poor women of color in the United States and women in developing countries. Miramontes said women between the ages of 15 and 25 are now the highest risk group for AIDS worldwide.

Moreover, 90 percent of HIV infections will be in developing countries by the year 2000, and 80 percent of those cases will be contracted through heterosexual relations, Miramontes said. Women are seven times more at risk than men of contracting the virus as a result of heterosexual relations, she added.

In the United States, she added, more than 75 percent of AIDS cases in women occur in African-American and Hispanic women. Risk of infection, Miramontes said, "is compounded by their underserved, stigmatized and low economic status."

She said many African-American and Hispanic women here, as well as women in general in developing countries, are "already trapped and caught - they are women with no choices, little education and no locus of control over their lives."

Biologically, Miramontes said, women are at greater risk of contracting HIV because of the thinness of the vaginal wall and the greater trauma to tissue during intercourse. Domestic violence, histories of sexual abuse, economic dependence on spouses and "living on the edge" also increase risk, she said.

"If many of these women said, `Use a condom,' they would be beaten up, kicked out," Miramontes said. "There is a whole link of violence and abuse - physical, emotional and psychological - that sets women up for infection."

For women, Washington's budget cutting for welfare, human services and the HIV program is "awful," Miramontes said. "Women are at the bottom of the lists."

Despite so many apparent obstacles, NCAN members in Chicago found inspiration, hope and determination at the conference. Apart from a variety of workshops on pressing issues surrounding the AIDS pandemic, pastoral strategies and medical updates, there were "self-care activities" where participants learned to take time out to nurture themselves through massage, acupuncture, music, mandalas and even country line dancing. Entertainment included a cabaret talent show, a youth theater presentation and a cruise tour of Chicago.

"Sometimes you need to throw everything down and laugh and dance and sing. If you didn't, you'd end up walking the earth like a pancake -- flat." Marshall said.

Miramontes offered similar advice, summing up an attitude prevalent among conference participants. "I may not see the solutions. My job is just to work, to practice `joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.'"
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Title Annotation:includes related article on San Jose, CA, Diocese teen theater project; 1995 annual Catholic HIV/AIDS Ministry Conference, Chicago, IL
Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Aug 11, 1995
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