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Be Not Afraid

The following is excerpted from an article that first appeared at on August 3, 2007.

On July 26, 2007, [over] thirty college students gathered together at Loyola University in Chicago to take part in a College Leaders portion of the annual National Catholic AIDS Network [NCAN] Gathering. Catholic Relief Services sponsored all of the college students to attend the conference for the third year in a row. Students came from over twenty different universities, most of them Catholic institutions.

College students at NCAN gathering

Thirty-eight university student participants at the annual NCAN gathering.

The gathering itself is in its twentieth year, and brings together around 100 people who are involved with AIDS activism and other forms of ministry for those living with HIV and AIDS, as well as people who themselves are infected or who have a loved one that is infected.

The chance to attend the National Catholic AIDS Network Annual Gathering as part of CRS's College Leaders program was one of the best opportunities that I have ever been given. I was blessed enough to get this opportunity two years in a row, and because of this experience was assigned to the captain position of one group of the college leaders.

I originally went last year as a way to kick off the organizational efforts for Notre Dame's World AIDS Day. CRS had just started a program the year before in which they sponsored college students to attend the gathering in exchange for a promise to carry the word back to each campus. With the University of Notre Dame being a Catholic institute, my fellow classmates and I had struggled with the best way to approach activism towards the delicate subject of HIV and AIDS that would still be following Catholic teaching. A national network made up of Catholics working to fight HIV and AIDS seemed like a great starting-point for the work we were to do.

The gathering highly exceeded all of my expectations. It was a learning experience, a time of bonding with a diverse group of people, and an opportunity for spiritual growth.

My knowledge on the subject of HIV and AIDS has grown immensely. The facts were presented by experts who have been in this fight for over two decades. There was no way to ignore the facts, to tell myself that it was a faraway problem — we were given the whole truth of the pandemic, and the real-life teachings of people who themselves were infected.

Rev. Robert Vitillo introduced this year's college leaders to the pandemic by giving us the current global situation of HIV and AIDS. Father Vitillo is an inspiring man. He is president of the board of directors of NCAN and has spent the majority of his life traveling around the world working to improve the global situation of the pandemic. He especially is an expert when it comes to the Catholic Church's role in the fight. He presented us with the heartrending facts of what is going on today — that almost 40 million people are living with HIV and AIDS around the world, with only ten percent actually knowing they are infected.

It is mostly within third world countries, such as sub-Sahara Africa and parts of Asia where the prevalence is highest, but the United States definitely is not close to being free of the virus. The reality is that HIV and AIDS are on the rise among African Americans and Hispanics, and especially women of these ethnicities. One common factor worldwide is that most new infections are among people who are poor. HIV and AIDS are both a cause and effect of poverty—being poor decreases a person's accessibility to healthcare and education about prevention while treating HIV and AIDS costs a person a very large amount of money and debilitates him or her from working, both of which can lead to poverty.

Called to Have Courage

Another analogy was made to the HIV virus — the stigma that one faces when they are infected. Instead of complete compassion, or even pity, infected persons face all sorts of discrimination, discrediting and discounting. Reverend Bryan Massingale spent time talking to the college leaders about stigma, explaining about the ways that fear perpetuates this special stigma towards HIV and AIDS.

Reverend Bryan Massingale

Reverend Massingale talks about the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.

As Rev. Massingale brought to our attention from the U.S. Bishops' Economic Justice for All, "The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were nonmembers of the human race […] Acquiescence [to patterns of exclusion] or failure to correct them when it is possible to do so is a sinful dereliction of Christian duty." The Church tells us that we can neither discriminate, nor stand by and watch as someone is discriminated. This statement is boldly saying that it is a sin to do so.

We are all called to be like Jesus, a man who did not pass anyone by. Our history is full of stigmatized populations, with the lepers being a prime example. Jesus embraced the lepers, and all those that were outcasts.

The theme of this year's gathering was "Be Not Afraid," and its meaning was carried out in different ways throughout the weekend. Rev. Massingale welcomed everyone to the gathering with a keynote reminding everyone that fears are natural and normal — it's what you do with them that matters. We may fear something, but God calls us to have the courage to do what is right, whether we are afraid or not. God is right by our side in these times. Trying to fight such a massive pandemic is terrifying, but that does not mean we should not try.

There is not yet a cure for AIDS, but there is care, and that is something we are all capable of contributing.

Reprinted with permission from Speroforum, Martin Barillas, religion news editor.

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