Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently agreed to all be tested for HIV/AIDS at their upcoming Conference of Bishops in a denominational effort to raise awareness about the pandemic.
The 65 synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary that make up the advisory board of ELCA's Conference of Bishops will be tested for the virus during their March 2009 meeting in Itasca, Ill.
ELCA's Ministry Among People in Poverty (MAPP) Committee had first introduced the idea at the October 2008 Conference meeting. The Conference of Bishops meet twice a year.
MAPP had encouraged all the bishops to support and be involved in local events on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, including raising awareness about AIDS prevention, testing, treatment, care, stigma and discrimination.
"We wanted to do something concrete to help amplify that initiative," said the Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers, chair of the MAPP Committee. "Part of the message of doing this is to remind people of both the importance of being tested for HIV and AIDS and also the confidentiality that surrounds that whole process. That way it's more inviting for people to participate in that, and it ensures the health and welfare of society when those confidentialities are kept."
The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA and president of the Lutheran World Federation, highlighted that because African religious leaders have been willing to state publicly that they have been tested, their actions have helped lessen the stigma associated with the disease and have encouraged others to be tested.
"I believe ELCA bishops being tested will be a similar act of accompaniment and encouragement for ELCA members and global companions," Hanson said. "This decision by ELCA bishops is one more sign of this church's commitment to respond to the HIV and AIDS pandemic."
Discussion about how the denomination can develop its HIV and AIDS strategy is expected to be considered during the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
Many other church-based HIV/AIDS conferences have also offered free testing to attendees and had prominent church leaders and politicians take the test publicly to encourage others to also get tested.
An estimated 33 million people worldwide currently live with HIV, according to the latest report on the global AIDS epidemic by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Nearly three-quarters of AIDS-related deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.
More than 2 million people have died from AIDS in 2007 alone, and a total of 25 million deaths in total.
In North America, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV.