Bishop and cabinet are tested for HIV/AIDS

Moses Mukasa (right), HIV/AIDS Prevention Specialist with Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, explains the mouth swab that is used to test for HIV/AIDS to Bishop Peggy Johnson.

by Suzy Keenan*

Bishop Peggy Johnson and district superintendents in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference cabinet were tested for HIV/AIDS on Wednesday, May 23.

This effort of conference leadership was organized to raise awareness that June is AIDS Education month and that June 27th is National HIV Testing Day.   The testing was arranged by the H.U.B. (Help Us Be) of Hope Ministry, an HIV/AIDS ministry begun by United Methodist Church of the Open Door, Kennett Square, PA.  HUB of Hope connected with The Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, the HIV testing provider, and collaborated with Bishop Johnson to implement the testing event.

Prior to beginning the testing, the cabinet heard a message from Dr. Deborah Tanksley-Brown, a deacon of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, and director of HUB of Hope.  “Thank you for your sacrifice of self,” she told the bishop and superintendents, “to be a voice for justice and reconciliation.”   She explained, ‘The Bishop and Cabinet’s willingness to be tested serves as a visible witness that the Church does see, hear, and respond. Your willingness to be tested will help to demonstrate the Church’s compassion and concern and also serve as an example for faith leaders, faith communities, communities throughout the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, and beyond that we are willing to do what we are asking others to do, ‘Get tested and Know your status.’”  She added, “While HIV is a health issue, the impact of living with the virus invades all areas of a person’s life.  The social justice side effect of HIV/AIDS that further weakens a person’s quality of life includes isolation, stigma, and discrimination.”

Left to right: Moses Mukasa (Philadelphia AIDS Consortium); Gary Nicholson (Northwest District superintendent); Irving Cotto (to become NE District superintendent on July 1); Bronwyn Yocum (NE District superintendent); Dorothy Watson Tatem (East District superintendent); Thomas Haugh (SE District supertendent); Charlene Arcila (Philadelphia AIDS Consortium); Jim Todd (SW District superintendent); and Bishop Peggy Johnson (seated).  Unable to be present because of a family commitment was Rev. Dr. Anita Powell, Central District superintendent.

Two representatives from the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, Moses Mukasa, HIV/AIDS Prevention Specialist, and Charlene Arcila, executive assistant, spoke with the bishop and superintendents.  Mr. Mukasa has been organizing AIDS testing for the past three years, and has been involved “almost since the beginning of the epidemic” in his native Uganda and various countries in the African continent.  He previously worked for the United Nations creating awareness and starting programs to help prevent the spread of the disease by changing behavior.  He said, “This effort to be tested by the bishop and cabinet means a lot.  It is our belief that the church has a big role in combating HIV among all groups in the population – especially in regard to reduction of the stigmatization of person with HIV.”

Mr. Mukasa and Ms. Arcila first took a history of each person and then administered a mouth swabbing test.  It was not necessary to draw blood.  Tests took approximately fifteen minutes to register results.

34-35 million people are living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, and the disease is most prevalent in the continent of Africa: 23-25 million people.  There are 1.2 to 1.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the USA.  30,000 people with HIV/AIDS are living in Philadelphia.  AIDS is the biggest killer of young adults between the ages of 20 and 35.  “Testing is vitally important because the sooner a person knows they have it the sooner they can begin the medications,” explained Mr. Mukasa.  “Things that promote the spread of HIV/AIDS are poverty, illiteracy, social stigma.”

“One of the most important ways of controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS is for people to get tested,” said Bishop Johnson.  “Soon home testing will be available over the counter.  Though it makes testing more accessible it can also pose problems when people do the test at home without support systems.  The church can be part of the ministry of support by offering tangible helps – like taking people to the doctor.  It is vitally important that they have the human relationships and hope, support the church can provide.”  She said, “We need to encourage everyone to get tested and the best way to encourage that is to do so by example.”

Bishop Johnson is pastoral leader of 200,000  members of the nearly  900 United Methodist Churches in The Philadelphia Area of The United Methodist Church.  She views her duties as a bishop is to be a prophetic voice for justice in the church and the world.  To that end, she created an HIV/AIDS Task Force in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference to raise awareness of the disease and to encourage churches in their ministry with persons with HIV/AIDS.

Rev. Thomas Haugh (left), superintendent for the Southeast District, learns how to properly use the mouth swab that will test for HIV/AIDS from Moses Mukasa (right), HIV/AIDS Prevention Specialist with Philadelphia AIDS Consortium.

Rev. Tom Haugh, superintendent for the Southeast District, stated, “I found it enlightening to begin to understand how testers work with a person’s history and work with compassion and confidentiality.”  Rev. Bronwyn Yocum, superintendent for the Northeast District added, “Much more than just testing, they offer human support and develop an action plan to help persons treat and deal with the disease.”

The H.U.B. of Hope HIV/AIDS Ministry coordinates Interfaith HIV/AIDS community conferences to inform, equip, and mobilize communities to respond, and will assist faith communities with connections to HIV testing providers and speakers for information and education.

This ministry also provides consultation and support to United Methodist Churches and other faith communities in developing HIV/AIDS ministries.  They encourage churches to create an HIV/AIDS information station, as well as to participate in community service, and to designate a mission offering to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund and other local and global mission funds.

For more information contact Deborah Tanksley-Brown, dtanksleybrown@verizon.net.

*Suzy Keenan is director of Communications for The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church: communications@epaumc.org.