UMCOR

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Radical Hospitality and HIV/AIDS

Maryland church welcomes people living with HIV and AIDS.
Women living with HIV and AIDS choose to live their lives in color as their participation in a tie-dye workshop at a retreat center demonstrates.
Julia Kayser

By Julia Kayser*

December 7, 2012—As a camp employee, I had never seen such enthusiastic tie-dyeing. The Women of Wisdom campers weren’t satisfied with decorating their Suttle Lake Camp and Retreat Center t-shirts; they had come prepared with white garments of every shape and size from their homes, and they intended to saturate everything in brilliant color. Normally I would have imposed some quota, but this time, I didn’t have the heart. These women were living with HIV and AIDS. Breaking out the extra dye was the least I could do.

That’s how I found myself wringing soda ash, a harsh solution used to treat the clothes and make the dye stick, out of one young woman’s underwear. With her copper hair and clear blue eyes, she could have been my sister. As her three-year-old daughter fluttered in circles around us and I wrapped rubber bands around a handful of panties, she decided to tell me her story. She’d been with her boyfriend for six years, she said. They didn’t use protection, because they wanted to start a family, and it never occurred to her that there might be someone else. The fact that he’d cheated was bad enough. The fact that he’d contracted and transmitted HIV to her and their daughter? It was almost too much to bear.

But here she was, bearing it. The medication had made her lose 30 pounds, she told me, gesturing to the way her t-shirt clung to her collarbone. She struggled with depression. She didn’t know how to explain HIV to her daughter. But she was still drenching their lives in as much color as she could muster. “Sometimes, I just have to tell people the whole story,” she said, “because otherwise they think it’s my fault.”

I was mortified. How often do we people of faith pass judgment on others undeservedly? HIV and AIDS are terrifying not only because of the physical symptoms, but because of the isolation that they cause through brutal stigma. The church is uniquely positioned to combat stigma through unconditional love. What if we lived up to that possibility?

First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, Maryland, provides an example. This local church is a certified HIV testing site. I talked with Senior Pastor Rev. Joan E. Carter-Rimbach about this important ministry.

“We can’t keep silent,” she told me. Her congregation is making a difference through “educating, testing, and getting the word out to the community at large,” she said. They create flyers, billboards, and incentives (in the form of gift cards) for bringing people into the center for testing. Most months, they test from one to eight people. But the ministry is growing: at last September’s health fair, the church tested 24 people!

Carter-Rimbach leads by example. At the annual health fair, when people line up for testing, she said, “Every year, I’m out there in front. I get tested.”

Dialogue is key. “I’m trying to get people to talk about it and to feel comfortable talking about it,” Carter-Rimbach said. She seeks to minister to the whole person by providing trained support and following up with resources no matter what the test result is. She said her dream is that “when people come in, we would have everything we need to make them feel welcome, invited, and comfortable.” Carter-Rimbach calls this a kind of radical hospitality.

That’s an expression that ordinarily makes us think of visitors and refugees, but in this context, it couldn’t be more apt. Radical hospitality is a “Welcome” so strong that it that breaks down social norms, boundaries, and stigma. What would it look like for you to offer radical hospitality to people affected by HIV/AIDS? Maybe it means inviting neighbors to a local testing site. Maybe it means donating to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund. Or, if you’re like me, maybe it means listening, writing, and spending four hours rinsing someone else’s tie-dyed underwear.

*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.