Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

December 3, 2006

 “What the World Needs Now”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

You remember that Burt Bacharach song,

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It's the only thing that there's just too little of….”

What the world needs now is love, sweet love—not just for some, but for everyone.

Bob and Kelly both read some facts about what is going on with the AIDS epidemic. Here in the United States, we still have 40,000 people a year becoming infected with HIV, and that number has continued steady for the last ten years. The disease, of course, disproportionately affects ethnic minorities and the poor. According to the Unitarian Universalist office at the United Nations, half of those infected in the US are not getting the medical attention they need, and 95% of people infected worldwide are not getting the attention they need. It is estimated that fully one quarter of a million people in the US do not even know that they are infected.

There are signs of hope. In President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, he promised $15 billion to prevent new infections, to provide care and support for the sick and for AIDS orphans, and to provide anti-retro-viral drugs to 2 million people. The commitment that President Bush made in 2003 is being fulfilled, and there are strides being made. At the time of his 2003 speech, only 50,000 people in all of sub-Saharan Africa were receiving life-saving drugs. Today, more than three-quarters of a million people there are receiving those drugs. Since 1994, Bill and Melinda Gates have given nearly $8 billion to global health concerns, and in recent years they have concentrated their focus on AIDS in Africa.

So, the world is responding. But the crisis continues.When AIDS was first identified in 1981, the disease was seen primarily in gay men, Haitians and intravenous drug users. To white, middle class America, these groups—already marginalized and the victims of discrimination—were characterized by too many as having brought on their own misery. Especially in those early days, rather than sympathy for the suffering, there were many who felt only fear of the disease. Although demonizing those with the disease was wrong, fear of the virus was understandable and warranted. We didn’t yet know how this new scourge spread and it led to horrifying deaths in young and recently healthy people. But because the vast majority of cases were contracted among these marginalized groups, the purveyors of what we might call “false religion” saw God’s hand at work. God, some preached, hates the very people that White America fears. And the AIDS virus was proof of this.Today, while disapproval of homosexuality is largely unchanged among evangelical leaders, HIV/AIDS is being seen more and more for what it is—nothing more and nothing less than a pandemic disease that is wiping out entire generations.

Many are concerned that the influence of evangelical Christian theology has distorted efforts to eradicate AIDS in Africa, because of the emphasis on teaching abstinence as the primary method of prevention. A substantial portion of US dollars is ear-marked for faith-based groups to use in order to promote the value of abstaining from sex before marriage. On Thursday, the Boston Globe reported that “Christian health associations deliver at least 40 percent of healthcare in several African countries. In the past year, the US program spent 24 percent of its funds on faith-based groups.”

The Globe article focused on the efforts of many evangelicals to get Congress to stop contributions by the United States to the The Global Fund for AIDS because of its supposed discrimination against faith-based groups. These Christian evangelical faith-based organizations do have reason to worry, because there is growing opposition to the ear-marking of funds for abstinence education. The problem with having so much money go for those types of efforts is that too often these organizations are simply ignoring evidence about what actually helps prevent the spread of infection.When I taught theology at a Catholic girls’ school in Greenwich, I taught a section on chastity. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, has an official stance against contraception and therefore condoms. The school had recently started a laptop program, and asked us teachers to try to have the girls use their computers and the internet as much as possible. I went on the internet for sites about chastity. One that I found had a number of facts about how condoms did not work against the spread of AIDS. It included some specific numbers about how large the AIDS virus is (measured in microns), and how large the naturally occurring holes in latex condoms are. The site claimed that the AIDS virus could easily get through a condom. I e-mailed the woman who was webmaster for the site to ask where she had gotten her facts. I certainly wasn’t going to direct the girls to a site whose information I couldn’t verify. The webmaster e-mailed me back relatively quickly to tell me that the information came from the Centers for Disease Control—a most reliable source. I went to the CDC website and found that every bit of information that she had on her site was in direct contradiction to the CDC’s information. I e-mailed her back, saying, “This is your list of facts, and this is the CDC’s list of facts.” She didn’t reply. I was sad to see that each time I checked her site, the incorrect information was still there. I fear that this type of rejection of evidence exists in too many religious organizations working on HIV/AIDS.

The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, was in Washington, DC on Thursday to speak at a World AIDS Day event. “So what can religious people and organizations do to help end HIV/AIDS?” he asked. And, in answer to his own question, he pointed to the work of the Unitarian Universalist Global AIDS Coalition, which is working with both religious and secular groups to end earmarks for "Abstinence until Marriage" programs on the grounds that such programs divert money from effective programs.

One of the organizations that the UU Global AIDS Coalition works with is the Zimbabwe Artists Project (ZAP), which is based in Portland, Oregon. The Zimbabwe Artists Project (or “ZAP”) helps women become economically self-sufficient. “Most women in Zimbabwe live on their own, providing for families. Some are widowed, others are single heads of households, since throughout Zimbabwe, men leave the rural areas to seek work in cities. Women's income from agriculture is unpredictable and limited. Sales of their art helps women afford food, clothing, school fees, medicines, transport, seeds and fertilizer.”

The market for their art is extremely limited in Zimbabwe, so sales in the U.S. are critical. ZAP pays more than twice as much per piece as any other buyer, delivering cash at the time of purchase. The Zimbabwe Artists Project has also helped these artists create their own cooperative association, gives the artists feedback on how to alter their designs to make them more marketable in the US and, when possible, provides workshops to enhance technical skills.

I was excited to learn that these UU’s were taking an approach to AIDS relief that seeks economic empowerment for the poor. The scourge of the disease cannot be separated out from the worldwide economic and trade policies that have contributed to Africans’ inability to afford proper care for themselves. The Zimbabwe Artists Project is operating as a Fair Trade organization—an organization that seeks to allow the poor to sell their products to Western markets, thereby increasing their economic independence. Fair Trade seeks to build a dignified, reciprocal relationship with producers, rather than exploitative relationships which care only how cheaply labor can be acquired. So-called “Free Trade” is based on the effort to maximize profit and minimize cost, with the dignity and well-being of the workers being of little or no interest. Fair Trade, on the other hand, does not place human dignity and well-being at the service of low cost. Fair Trade is a system that is based on the firm conviction that trade can and must respect human rights, human dignity, the environment, and basic decency.Bono—the lead singer of U2—formed an organization in 2002 called DATA—the D, A, T, A stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa. Bono, motivated in part by his Christian faith, was a supporter of the efforts by some to have all debt to Africa forgiven in the year 2000, as a way to start fresh in the new millennium. This was tied naturally to efforts to help the crisis in Africa through Trade, not Aid. Fair Trade—as opposed to so-called Free Trade—is a way to strengthen Africa’s ability to work its own way out of its problems through dignity and fairness in trade policy. When Bono was persuaded that AIDS in Africa was at cataclysmic proportions, he understood how inexplicably tied this cataclysm is with trade and economic policies.

The DATA website tells us that “Africa has 12% of the world’s population. In 1980, the continent had a 6% share of world trade. By 2002 this had dropped to just 2%. If Africa could mregain just an additional 1% share of global trade, it would earn $70 billion more in exports each year - several times more than what the region currently receives in foreign aid. An example of how trade policy is devastating countries in Africa is cocoa production. Ghana can export raw cocoa duty free to Europe, but a 25% tariff is imposed if they process that cocoa before exporting it to Europe. It is the processing which helps a country earn more money and develop its manufacturing base - and that manufacturing base is what allows an economy to grow. While fair trade could be Africa's ticket out of the vicious cycles of poverty, unfair trade rules like these trap Africa at the gates.”

There are many approaches that we need to take to the AIDS crisis, and the promotion of Fair Trade is one of the many approaches we can take that are practical. This very day, you have the opportunity to encourage fair trade at the table set up by the youth at the Holiday Fair. While the specific goods being sold at the table are not from Africa—most are from Asia or Latin America—the more we support Fair Trade, the more we influence world trade policy.A UU young adult recently returned from a trip to Zambia, sponsored by the UU Global AIDS Coalition. “I have long heard horror stories about the AIDS epidemic in Africa,” she writes, “but when I was there it all became a reality. I saw how much need there actually is and was glad to have not arrived empty handed. Of course what I gave was little compared to the immense need, but I believe now more than ever that every little bit does in fact count. I am very proud to have been raised in the Unitarian Church. I believe that the part of me that even wanted to go to Zambia owes much to the lessons I learned at church. The generosity is pure and real. [In Zambia,] I saw so many fundamentalist churches and heard stories of missionaries from such churches that were there for all the wrong reasons. They see the poverty and suffering [there] as convenient to their principles; they offer no concrete aid, solely the threat of hell and the hope of heaven (with a small tithe of course). It is refreshing to know that we are a church that gives without asking for anything back…. At times I had to deal with [thoughts such as] "What am I doing here? What do I really have to offer? I can’t change anything! I get to leave," [Yet] I was constantly reassured with smiles, hugs, and hand squeezes that [told me that] my presence was appreciated. Every little bit really really really does matter.” Every little bit really really really does matter. There is so much to do. There are those among us—and you may be one of them—who are living with HIV and AIDS. So many of us have lost friends to this disease. Although the focus has shifted away from homosexual men, it is still true that about half of all current infections are the result of sex between men, meaning that for gay men, AIDS is still very much an issue and a concern. And our African and Latino brothers and sisters are bearing the brunt more and more of this scourge.

Every effort we make to influence how our government spends its money makes a difference.

Every effort we make to reduce prejudice against homosexuality makes a difference. Every time you attend a Welcoming Congregations workshop, you are making a difference.

Every time we pick up our pound of coffee here at SNUUC and support Fair Trade, we are making a difference.

Every item we purchase at the Fair Trade table today makes a difference.

The existence of this congregation makes a difference, because we stand as a beacon to Freeport and Long Island and the world that religion is about caring for one another, whether gay, straight, or transgender, whether black or white or Latino. Religion is about seeing the suffering of an orphaned child in Africa as our own suffering and sending our young people to go there to give whatever small bit of assistance and comfort she can give.

The need is great, and so therefore the opportunities are great. What the world needs now is love sweet love. May we be instruments of love, healing and renewal.