The following response was submitted to and printed in the La Canada Sun, The Glendale Press and the Burbank Leader the week of March 22nd, in response to the question:  If you had a chance to attend a summit on HIV/AIDS, what ideas would you offer to strengthen the voice and action of religious leaders and bring about collaboration among the different faiths with other sectors involved in the response to HIV/AIDS?

First, it is important to mention that my own faith tradition does not lift up “divine retribution” as the cause of human illness or suffering.  Such a perspective leads too easily to self-righteous judgment of the afflicted and an unwillingness to seek solutions to humanity’s many ailments.  It also encourages those already burdened by poverty or disease to be further disempowered by guilt and shame.

What Unitarian Universalism does promote is a responsibility:  1. to learn as much as possible about the ways in which we humans cause or contribute to suffering, so that we have a better sense of how to prevent & ease it;  2. to link that knowledge with love and compassion, with personal commitment to justice, equity, and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

As this applies to HIV/AIDS, Unitarian Universalist congregations are great supporters of a value-based, age-appropriate human sexuality education program.  The curricula is organized into six age groups, ranging from grade K-1 through adulthood, so that the information grows with the growth of the individual’s mind, body and spirit.

Surprising to me is how many adults lightheartedly enter this program believing that they would learn nothing new.  More often than not, they complete the program with a whole new appreciation for ongoing education in this arena, as well as with a much better ability to make healthy choices and to initiate helpful conversations with their children.

Some of the other ways that our congregations seek to support individuals and families who have or may become affected by HIV/AIDS is by providing information regarding other local resources for wellness, such as testing and needle-exchange programs; through legislative involvement; and through ongoing affirmation of our ability and responsibility to make choices that are grounded in our religious values.

The challenge of human illness or suffering is a universal one.  While we could spend our time arguing the role of God’s will in all of this, wouldn’t it make it more sense to focus on the ways in which our religious traditions empower us to live long, healthy, and truly loving lives?

The Rev. Stefanie Etzbach-Dale

Unitarian Universalist Church of Verdugo Hills, La Crescenta, CA

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