Today is World's AIDS Day.
It has also been nearly 20 years since Ervin 'Magic' Johnson announced to the world his retirement from the NBA because he had been infected with the HIV virus.
Those of us who are basketball fans to whatever degree remember what a shock that day was! It came during a time when we knew little about HIV or AIDS, and what we knew was mostly derived from ignorance and fear. It was a 'gay disease'. You might get it from a toilet seat. Or by touching an infected person.
I was a pastor at the time and the Dallas Morning News asked if I was going to make some statement to the congregation regarding Johnson's announcement that Sunday. I hadn't planned on it, but since they asked, I said I would. I'm don't remember what I said that Sunday morning, but they ran the article the next day, along with a picture of me making the statement and a headline something to the effect of 'Local Pastor Reacts to Magic Johnson's Announcement'. A couple of days later, I had phone calls from former college classmates saying that they had heard that I had contracted AIDS and it was in 'all the papers'!
Over time I began to see the devastating impact of AIDS in my congregation, among some friends and even family members. To date I know of at least six AIDS related deaths and the shame of families as they either were total denial or, even in the church I led, whispered admissions that 'someone died of AIDS'.
The hysteria then, as now, mirrors our society's penchant for reaction as opposed to studied and educated reflection leading to action. As is usually the case, time, education and reason wins out. But such victories are never 'finally' won. We need to continue to educate ourselves and every succeeding generation of the dangers posed by this dreaded disease.
The African-American community disproportionately is impacted by HIV/AIDS. According to the Kaiser Foundation, "one in two of those infected with HIV today are Black Americans far surpassing any other racial or ethnic group. Men who have sex with men (MSM) of all races represent the most heavily affected group, and the only population for which HIV rates are on the rise again. HIV/AIDS is a deeply personal issue with 43 percent of all Americans today -- and nearly 60 percent of Black Americans -- now knowing someone who is living with or has died from the disease, for many a family member or close friend..."
“A lot of people can’t afford to buy their drugs or leave their community to go get tested or get the proper health care,” [Magic] Johnson said. “We have to educate people, especially in the black and brown community. That’s been my focus through the last 10 years, through the churches, through the schools and through the colleges as well. The numbers are too high...We’ve got to bring those numbers down and work on the stigma as well, (plus) the it-can’t-happen-to-me (perception).” Read more here.
It's important to keep this conversation going. Magic Johnson is an example of what it means to be able to live with HIV. It's a matter of helping people understand the cause, the prevention and help available, and making access to treatment available to everyone. It's a matter of personal responsibility and public awareness. And its a matter of challenging the hysteria and providing hope.
It's a winnable fight and those are the best kind.