By: Jen Sloniger
Your Questions Answered
is a blog series which addresses Project HOPEFUL blog readers’ most burning questions. Please submit your questions to: media@projecthopeful.org

QUESTION: How can local church families prepare to welcome HIV+ children? How should they be preparing their congregations?
~Jennifer

ANSWER:
Hi Jennifer. Thanks for sharing your questions.

These days it is fairly common for churches to have the proper safeguards in place when operating programs for children, though some smaller congregations may not. As I’ve written about before any school, day-care, or church operating programs with children should be practicing Universal Precautions. PERIOD. If your church or group isn’t following Universal Precautions protocols then you should request that they implement them immediately for the safety of everyone involved.

As far as educating a church fellowship (or any other group for that matter) goes, it all depends on the willingness of the leadership to join you in this endeavor. Some leaders are resistant to the idea. Some haven’t confronted their own fears and stigma related to HIV and therefore are unable to lead their flock in doing the same.

However, there are many, many church leaders who are supportive and willing to promote education within their church… they simply may lack the time. My suggestion is always be willing to dig in and do any work you want to see happen. Don’t bring ideas before your leadership if you aren’t willing to invest the time and effort to bring them to fruition. Sit down and come up with a written proposal for what you hope to see accomplished. Keep it brief but make sure there is enough specific detail in there to prove you have a method to your madness. Ask your pastor for just 30 minutes to share your goals. (Who doesn’t have 30 minutes to spare?) A well thought out proposal will show your leadership you are both passionate and committed, which will likely help to stoke the fires within them.

Sometimes it is best to start small. If you don’t have experience teaching or leading groups you may want to propose a small group of interested members begin to meet in your home for a few weeks. You’re going to need help. Develop a team of advocates who are well-educated about HIV, the needs of positive orphans, and the families who will adopt them. Pray about and consider your church’s unique personality and the ways God might use those traits to serve in the field of HIV/AIDS orphan care and adoption ministry. Perhaps most importantly, share your excitement about the things God has in store for your church.

If you can gain enough momentum with your core group of advocates and get a solid grip on where you hope to lead the efforts, the next step might be to host an educational event. In preparing a community to support the needs of individuals with HIV/AIDS three issues need to be addressed. Those are the spiritual, emotional, and educational needs of the people you wish to mentor into becoming advocates/supporters. Consider planning some kind of class or seminar aimed at helping teach the truth about HIV/AIDS and deal with the three aspects of education.

It is easy to deal with the facts about HIV. The evidence is clear-cut and scientific. If anyone wants to disagree with the hard facts of science they simply aren’t open to reason. No amount of logic will change their minds.

Dealing with the emotions of people as they begin to wrap their hearts around HIV/AIDS can be challenging. It is important to remember in all your educational efforts that you once had questions too. Try to recall what it was like when you first discovered about HIV/AIDS and all the questions you had. Don’t lose sight of how powerful fear can be and how often people can feel ashamed for not having the answers. Expect some weird and emotional reactions from people as their fear-based preconceived notions are shattered.

The point is not to berate people for being ignorant of the facts; it is to equip them with truth so they can be in the know. This can sometimes be a painstaking experience that might threaten to suck every drop of patience you possess.

Since you’ve written specifically about how to reach out to your church members, I’d also like to address dealing with the spiritual mandates for reaching out in love to HIV+ individuals. Surprisingly people can be very choosy with who they think God has called them, specifically, to love. Sometimes the general attitude is, it’s all well and fine for that organization over there to love orphans with HIV/AIDS…. but that’s not for me, it’s not my “calling”. When another member of their church embraces HIV it can sometimes cause members to feel threatened and produce emotional responses. It’s important to speak the truth in LOVE to these resistors. By all means never back down to stigma or give way to lies, but know that often times the underlying issue at the core of a person’s dissent is usually motivated by fear or guilt. Either the can’t get over their unsubstantiated fears about HIV/AIDS or they feel guilty for not wanting to.

The way to overcome these attitudes is by being compassionate. (praying for that person doesn’t hurt either!) Through compassion we are able to model what it ought to look like in those we seek to inspire. For people can only teach what they know. If we want to arm the next wave of advocates in the fight against stigma and complacency it is up to you and I to teach them first. Let’s make sure we are teaching well.

People will still always have the choice of whether or not they want to follow in the footsteps of compassion and love, but at least we can leave a well-worn path for them to follow, should they choose.

As always project HOPEFUL can work with you to get you any educational materials you might need.

Also, depending on where you live, Project HOPEFUL has State Associates who are willing to walk along side you and support your efforts. (You might even consider becoming a State Associate yourself, using the skills you gain through developing your program to help others do the same)