GMHC Looks at Spirituality, Health and HIV
Many in the LGBT community have a conflicted relationship with religion, thanks to an upbringing replete with messages about homophobia and the wages of sin. But being gay or HIV-positive doesn't mean you have to turn your back on spirituality. Via a new discussion series, GMHC tries to help pozzers reconnect with their spiritual center for healthier living.
On Oct. 10, Reverend Dr. Mariah Britton from The Moriah Institute joined Elder Stacy Latimer of Love Alive International Foundation, Chris Jones from the SAGE Harlem Center and Reverend Michael Lynch from Our Lady of Mount Carmel for "Don't Shhh...Me! A discussion out loud about sex, health, spirituality and HIV."
"Part of the difficulty as I heard it at the panel was that people were having a lot of hurt and disappointment in churches around the identification of sexual orientation," said Britton in a recent interview. "The matter of being a spiritual being, in my view, is beyond a particular denomination or church; it is how one understands oneself in relationship to God."
Rev. Britton said that it was in our relationships with others that we understand the manifestation of God, so that when people deny you acceptance due to your sexual orientation, it impacts your understanding of spirituality.
"I do think that having a fuller sense that we are all within God's creation, rather than outside of it, changes your life in all kinds of ways," said Britton. "We are helping people understand their personal worth and seek to live healthy lives."
She works within faith-based institutions, primarily with Protestants, and other organizations that are interested in helping people understand sexuality education and spirituality issues.
Perhaps the best thing that spirituality or religion can offer to people who are battling a new HIV diagnosis or living with the disease is in finding a greater sense of peace and internal well-being.
"While critics will argue that spirituality is a loose concept because it cannot be measured, practitioners whose clinical practice includes clients facing difficult life circumstances will acknowledge that spirituality is a source of support and strength," said Dr. Robert Miller, Associate Professor and Director of Research Training and Education Core, SUNY-Albany, in 2005. "Some people have suggested that spirituality has been effective in managing their illness. Published social science research studies suggest that black gay men, especially those living with HIV and AIDS, who use spirituality have been able to self-report consistent medication adherence, reduced alcohol consumption and more consistent condom use."
And Britton said that even non-structured spiritual pursuits could help people who are living with HIV. She cited yoga and open- or closed-eye meditation as creative ways to find your center. Having a teacher is imperative to "learning that discipline and working with you and your openness to the creator and the creative forces in the universe."
"If you can find a place to help you do that, that’s the beginning of a greater sense of peace and courage to speak your truth, not with the expectation of approval, but just to speak it," said Britton. "There is not one book I can send anyone to, but if you have a relationship with someone you trust, cultivating that is more important. I think that meditation and acknowledging the presence of God has an impact on one’s physical being as well. You need to be receptive to the healing protocols prescribed."
HIV and Stigma: A Prayer from the Pulpit
Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, preachers have not said many constructive things about the disease while standing at the pulpit. This needs to change before people living with HIV are fully able to access the health and wellness benefits of religion.
But the conversation first needs to begin with sexuality, and therein lay the difficulties in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The sex-negative culture of many modern religions forces a disconnect between the church and real life, making it difficult for people to even begin to talk about a same-gender loving LGBT community.
"If you’re going to get pastors to engage with a more welcoming and affirming approach to people who are LGBT or living with HIV, first one has to gain a greater sense of compassion around sexuality," said Britton. "Now that HIV is a manageable disease, there is also that added weight around stigma and misunderstandings around those who contract it."
Battling the stigma around HIV and finding a constructive way for preachers to speak to their parishioners candidly about getting tested for and living with HIV are obstacles that need to be surmounted before PLWHAs can tap into the healing power that organized religion can offer. But finding a spiritual center, even one outside the organized church, can help those battling illness become healthier and happier individuals.
"In many cases, spirituality helps with understanding some of the sources of shame and fear that may be in their lives," said Miller. "As they pursue meaning and purpose in their lives, they can re-evaluate and identify priorities that promote healthy decision making, which are consistent with their desired health outcomes. For many people, spirituality is a strength that helps them live more integrated lives. It also helps with the development of support and promoting growth which can be sustained during difficult times."
For those interested in supporting GMHC’s mission, on Nov. 7, GMHC invites guests to Thanks & Giving, a new fall fundraiser. The event will be held from 7-9 p.m. at 82 Mercer Street. For more information, visit http://www.gmhc.org/donate/special-events/thanks--giving