Rural parishes look at AIDS - Catholic Courier

Rural parishes look at AIDS

More than 1 million people in the United States were living with HIV/AIDS by the end of 2003, and nearly a quarter of these people were not aware they carried the disease, according to a recent estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These statistics become even more startling when one realizes that at least a handful of them live in the Finger Lakes region.

Since January alone, the Geneva satellite office of AIDS Rochester has seen 12 new clients, according to Susan Bonanni, the agency’s rural-outreach coordinator. To put that number into perspective, she noted that the Geneva office usually receives four new cases in an entire year.

HIV testing is becoming more common in rural areas, which probably accounts for the high number of new clients, she added. Yet HIV and AIDS carry a strong stigma, so many people with the diseases, especially those in rural areas, don’t share their diagnosis with others.

“I think it’s more prevalent than we know, because of the stigma. In small towns, news travels more quickly than in larger communities. I think maybe people would tend to keep it to themselves rather than run the risk of being ostracized,” said Peggy Ruscio, a leader of the social-ministry committee for the Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community.

Ruscio and her fellow committee members recently decided it was time to break the silence surrounding HIV and AIDS. On May 6 they invited parishioners to watch “A Closer Walk,” a documentary about AIDS in the world, and discuss the challenges of responding to HIV and AIDS in a rural setting.

Ruscio saw “A Closer Walk” for the first time at a diocesan event more than a year ago, and ever since she has felt called to spread awareness of the disease and its effects. Directed by Bloomfield resident Robert Bilheimer, the documentary was released in 2003.

While working on the documentary, Bilheimer, who lived in Naples for more than 20 years, interviewed or profiled more than 50 people in Uganda, South Africa, Haiti, Switzerland, India, Nepal, Ukraine, Cambodia and the United States. The documentary includes sound bites from the Dalai Lama, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2. Narrated by Glenn Close and Will Smith, the film tells the stories of dozens of people suffering from the effects of HIV and AIDS, as well as the stories of their advocates and doctors.

The documentary interweaves these people’s stories with harsh statistics:

Every eight seconds, someone dies of AIDS.

Twenty-six million people already have died of AIDS.

In some parts of Africa, one-third of all pregnant women have AIDS.

Every day, 2,000 children are born with HIV.

These are just a few of the sobering facts that tugged at Ruscio’s heartstrings.

“It had a profound effect on me, and ever since then I’ve really wanted to have some sort of program down here about (AIDS),” Ruscio said. “We really need to do something. We can’t just turn our backs.”

Many people do turn their backs on those with HIV and AIDS, said Alice Robeson, a health educator for the Ontario County Health Department. People can be very judgmental, assuming that the disease is a just punishment for a patient’s wrongdoing or sins, she said.

“In many instances the immediate response is to judge, but nobody I’ve ever met chooses to get HIV,” Robeson said. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Fear often lies at the root of such behavior, she added. If people don’t have a basic understanding of HIV, they may mistakenly believe they can contract the disease simply from being in the same room with someone carrying it.

Ruscio and the social-ministry committee members hoped to counteract this type of ignorance by inviting people to watch “A Closer Walk” and learn more about HIV and AIDS. Many people probably don’t mean to be judgmental or misinformed about the disease, she said, and HIV simply may be something they haven’t really thought much about.

“Unless it touches us personally, we tend to not pay attention to the things around us, even things that are very serious like AIDS. We have to offer (education) because maybe sooner or later, someone (we know) is going to be affected by it,” she said.

Ruscio said she thinks education is the key to breaking down the stigma surrounding the disease. Once people have gotten past their initial fear and misconceptions about HIV, they can move on to the work of caring for the disease’s victims.
“We’re called to be compassionate and to include people, not shun them or judge them or reject them. They’re sick and they need our help,” she said.
For their part, Ruscio and her fellow social-justice committee members plan to purchase several copies of “A Closer Walk” for local public libraries and their faith community’s faith-formation and social-justice libraries. They are also considering including an intercession for the victims of HIV and AIDS in the community’s weekend liturgies, a suggestion offered by Jane Hallinen, director of AIDS Services at Catholic Charities Community Services.

Ruscio said she also plans to help make people in her community more aware of resources like Catholic Charities Community Services and AIDS Rochester, which both provide case management and a variety of other services for people who have tested positive for HIV.

“There is AIDS in Naples and in Penn Yan and in Stanley and in Gorham and in Canandaigua. It may not be a Catholic. It may be. Doesn’t matter,” Robeson said. “The bottom line is to keep pounding at the door of judgment and denial, to say that, ‘Yes, it is here; it is a problem that we as a Christian faith-based community are called to address.”

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