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March 17, 2009

ELCA bishops participate in HIV screening


Hoping to encourage other church leaders and lessen the stigma and discrimination that often surrounds HIV and AIDS, most members of the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America participated in HIV screening March 5 in Chicago.

The Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the church, consisting of bishops who lead the 65 synods of the ELCA, plus the ELCA presiding bishop and ELCA secretary. The conference met March 5-10 in Chicago and Itasca, Ill.

At least 56 members of the conference were screened, said Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl of the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop. One or more bishops were screened prior to the meeting, and a few were not able to attend, she said.

Staff with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, Ill., supervised the screening, done with an oral swab. Results will be reported to members' physicians.

The conference agreed to the screening last October. Through screening, members said they could raise awareness about AIDS-related issues including prevention, testing, treatment, care, stigma and discrimination. The conference also wanted the testing to call attention to a proposed churchwide HIV and AIDS strategy, to be considered by the ELCA Church Council later this month.

"I hope that (the bishops) create awareness in their own synods and with their global companions that they indeed participated in the testing, and in that way raise awareness of the concern both locally and globally," said the Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers, bishop, ELCA Greater Milwaukee Synod, and chair of the conference's Ministry Among People in Poverty committee, which proposed the testing.

Marie C. Jerge, bishop, ELCA Upstate New York Synod, and vice chair of the conference, said HIV and AIDS is an important subject to her because the synod maintains a companion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe. The synod has been working with the Zimbabwe church on HIV prevention and supporting AIDS orphans, she said.

"It's also part of (helping) to raise awareness in our own communities," Jerge said. "This is one way we can make that kind of a witness." She added she hopes the ELCA Conference of Bishops' action will influence others, including bishops of the United Methodist Church, which expressed an interest in doing something similar.

Reflecting on the experience, Jon V. Anderson, bishop, ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod, said, "I'm haunted by the memory of fresh graves in huge fields."

He explained, "We visited a big church of our companion church body, the southeastern diocese of South Africa. We were looking out into the field. I asked, 'Is this one of the fields that you need help working on with agricultural issues?' The (local) bishop said, "No, it's full of dead bodies, Jon.' People from nearby communities had begun to bury loved ones there. He took me and showed me this."

Anderson said he believes that through the conference's HIV testing, it will help other religious leaders lead their people to be tested, address stigma, break through fear, and deepen understanding of HIV and AIDS. Ultimately he hopes the ELCA bishops' example will encourage others to work to prevent HIV and care for people with HIV.

Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, also participated in the screening.

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