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ELCA Presiding Bishop Washes Feet of HIV-Positive Women

Engaging in an act of "humility and repentance," the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Chicago, and president of the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, began an Aug. 1 presentation in Mexico City by washing the feet of two HIV-positive women. Hanson spoke during the Ecumenical Pre-Conference, July 31-Aug. 2, an event focused on the response of the faith community to HIV and AIDS.

Mexico City, Friday, August 8, 2008

More than 500 people from throughout the world attended the conference, which the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Geneva, organized.  The conference was one of several that preceded the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, Aug. 3-8.

Hanson washed the feet of Herlyn Marja Uiras and Sophie Dilmitis.  Uiras, Churches United Against HIV and AIDS in Southern and Eastern Africa, and Dilmitis, World YWCA, Geneva, were presenters at the conference.

Hanson spoke during a plenary session addressing stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV or AIDS.  He said washing the women's feet was the only way he could begin his remarks with integrity.  "I am absolutely convinced that we as religious leaders and we in the religious community that so shunned and shamed people with HIV and struggling with AIDS … must begin first by engaging in public acts of repentance," he said.  "Absent public acts of repentance, I fear our words will not be trusted."  Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his Crucifixion as a reminder that they were called to serve others, Hanson said.

Many participants expressed appreciation to Hanson for his act, but Hanson told the audience the point of his actions was to focus attention on Uiras, Dilmitis and people living with HIV or AIDS.  In humility we are called to become Christ to our neighbor and "to believe that Sophie and Herlyn have today become Christ to us," Hanson told the audience.  "What a sign of hope you are."

Hanson related the story of an HIV-positive woman who became a Lutheran pastor.  He said he hoped for the day when her story would be an expectation not an exception.  "Ending discrimination and stigmatization means we are committed to move from exceptions to expectations of the full participation of people living with HIV in our communities of faith," he said.

Male heterosexual religious leaders must be willing to talk about their own sexuality rather than talking about the sexuality of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, and they must break their silence on gender-based violence, Hanson said.  Human sexuality must not be a "church-defining, church-dividing issue," because the "good news" of Jesus Christ defines the church, he said.

At the International AIDS Conference, Hanson took part in an Aug. 3 panel discussion on how faith-based organizations respond to people who are marginalized.  To live a life centered in Christ means a Christian will always find herself or himself with "people at the margins," which calls for a compassionate response, he said.

"But that's only half of the call.  The other half of the call is to stand with people at the margins so that they will no longer be marginalized.  I think too often Christians have found their comfort zone in acts of charity, compassion and love, rather than the struggle for justice and the full inclusion of marginalized people," he said.

Religious communities must be introspective and ask themselves how people of faith perpetuate and contribute to structures and values that continue to marginalize people, he said.

Information about the Ecumenical Pre-Conference and the involvement of faith communities in the International AIDS Conference is at
http://iac.e-alliance.ch/ on the Web.

Video of the Aug. 3 panel discussion involving ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson is at http://iac.e-alliance.ch/2008/08/3-august-interfaith-panel-at-the-international-aids-conference/ on the Web. 


August 4, 2008



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