When Pastor Scott Allen’s wife was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 as the result of a blood transfusion, they turned to their church. Scott was not HIV+, but both of their sons’ blood tests confirmed AIDS for them as well, one a newborn and the other a toddler. The church’s response to the news was immediate: he was asked to resign on the spot and fired when he did not.
His father, Jimmy Allen, wrote the book Burden of a Secret about their family’s experiences through that time, which included the death of Scott’s wife and two sons and the varied responses of fellow believers. My heart broke a little more with each page, not just because Jimmy is a former president of the Southern Baptist denomination to which I belong but mostly because one of my children is HIV+. Thankfully, education about and treatment for HIV/AIDS has come a long way since 1985. But even today churches still say no to families like Scott’s and mine.
Our church barely flinched upon hearing the news. They have loved us well. When other parents have expressed concerns, our children’s ministry leaders have responded with education. But I know other families who haven’t had that experience. They have instead been treated as the early church treated modern day lepers. (Nevermind that Jesus reached out to and even touched the lepers then, just as he loves those we marginalize today.)
So what do you and your church need to know to say yes well to families affected by HIV and other blood-borne pathogens?
- Realize that you don’t know if any child has HIV or not. Legally, families like mine are only required to disclose about blood-borne pathogens to medical professionals. We didn’t have any legal, moral, or medical obligation to tell our church anything about HIV.
- Use universal precautions as part of your first aid policy. This is a fancy way of saying you should treat all people as if they could have HIV or some other disease. When dealing with blood or other bodily fluids, gloves should be worn. Hands should be washed. Surfaces should be cleaned. First aid supplies, including gloves, should be easily accessible in every classroom. In simple terms, we teach our kids, “If it’s wet and not yours, don’t touch it.”
- Remember that confidentiality matters. Families need to be able to trust their church leaders. That should be enough of a reason, but I’ll take it a step further: it’s the law. Every state’s statutes are different, but in NC where I live, HIV status is legally protected. In other words, disclosing another person’s HIV status can result in criminal charges.
- Be prepared for questions from other parents. When we shared online about our child’s status, we said we hoped to be able to answer questions and educate others so we could take the hits and protect our child from them. Our children’s pastor stopped us in the hall the following Sunday to tell us that he wanted to talk to us a little more about HIV. We said yes, but we must have looked apprehensive. He immediately explained, “You said you hope to take the hits for your child, and we want to learn so that we can take the hits for you when we can.” Those words communicated a depth of love.
- Know that medical science has come a long way. No other child is at risk by being at church with my family. Last I checked, no children’s ministries are playing blood transfusion or organ transplant games. So while HIV sounds scary, especially to those of us who were alive in the 80s and 90s, we now know how it is transmitted (blood transfusions, shared needles, and mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding) and how it isn’t (anything else, like sharing food or toilet seats or playground equipment or childhood accidents).
Simply put, your policies should be the same whether or not you have any known blood-borne pathogens present among the children you see on Sunday mornings. My child’s HIV doesn’t put any other kids at risk, but other viruses and diseases can be transmitted much more easily. So what should you do if there’s a child with HIV in your church? The same thing you should do otherwise: use best practices for first aid and show love to the child and parents.
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