Recently, it’s been hard for me to get into reading the Bible, but on December 1, I felt compelled to read the tale of Jesus healing a group of lepers in Luke. It seemed appropriate, after all, given that it was World AIDS Day, an international day of awareness around the continuing damage and death HIV/AIDS reaps.
On World AIDS Day, we honor the memory of those lost to AIDS, who were more often than not LGBTQ men (and particularly Latinx and black men) who found themselves ignored and abandoned by a president and a government that could have healed them but chose not to simply because they viewed them as low priority. In addition, we keep in mind that AIDS continues to destroy lives today, in America and around the world, especially in economically disadvantaged countries where healthcare is unaffordable or out of reach. Even in America, where medication has allowed those living with HIV to attain normal lifespans, the stigma around the disease persists.
In the ancient Judaic culture, leprosy — which causes ugly scarring and disfiguring of bodies — represented the physical effects of sin in our world. The lepers were cast out from society by priests, who feared their sin may spread to others. With all this in mind, the tale of the lepers seemed like an especially appropriate reading.
Unlike so much of his society, Jesus approached these pariahs in the book of Luke without fear or derision (and let’s keep in mind that he lived in a time where there was effectively no knowledge of how diseases were transmitted, so others may have believed he was putting himself at risk of infection). And then he heals them, as Jesus often did with the sick and disabled. At the end, he states, “Your faith has made you well.”
On May 24 of this year, I was diagnosed with HIV. I had gone in the prior weekend for a routine STD test, expecting a clean slate. When the doctor called and asked me if I was sitting down, I knew I had something. Even then, it didn’t feel real when she said I had HIV. I went back into my office and attempted normalcy, but after a failure to get anything done in the next thirty minutes, I gathered my things and left for the day.
When I read that passage about the lepers, I started to feel resentful. These men were healed from an incurable disease by their faith? I was faithful before my diagnosis, and I’ve been faithful since, so what does that say about my faith?
I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling of being diagnosed with an incurable disease. It’s one thing to say you don’t stigmatize the disease when you’re HIV negative; it’s an entirely different thing once you hear your blood test came back with a big, ugly plus sign on it.
The thoughts of what I could have done drive me insane: I could have been on PrEP; I could have used a condom; I could have just not slept with that person. The shame has kept me from seeking out support, seeking out writers and activists and people who’ve been through this before me, who could give voice to my experience.
In the same way that leprosy was seen as a spiritual ailment, AIDS was (and in many places still is) viewed as God’s punishment for homosexuality, as the wages of sin. Even in LGBTQ-affirming Christian spaces, there’s a silence around the topic of AIDS — thanks to stigma, respectability politics, and good old purity culture — that prevents me from feeling okay sharing my status. I’ve found myself growing more skeptical of the church’s concern for HIV-positive people since my diagnosis, and I’m not sure how to remedy that.
So when I read that passage about the lepers, I started to feel resentful. These men were healed from an incurable disease by their faith? I was faithful before my diagnosis, and I’ve been faithful since, so what does that say about my faith? What does that say about my disease? Honestly, medicine can’t even cure me, so what good is faith going to do?
Trauma doesn’t just go away; it merely scabs over, and we learn not to pick at it.
I wonder what those men did after they were healed. Of the ten, only one returned to thank Jesus. I assume the other ones returned home to their families and friends. Once there, were they met with excitement or trepidation? Were they welcomed home, or were they kicked out all over again? Did they stay faithful? More to the point: Did their lives really change?
We’re not told, but I believe they probably doubted their faith again at some point. I’ll bet they still felt hurt by their families and religious communities, too, even after being welcomed back. Trauma like that doesn’t just go away; it merely scabs over, and we learn not to pick at it.
The healing, then, that Jesus talks about wasn’t completed the day he removed their illness. Sure, the physical healing may have transpired, but the spirit has wounds, too. Healing of the spirit is a more mysterious process, a slow and unseen change of heart that can’t be heard through a stethoscope or examined in an MRI. It happens as we move closer to the truth of who we are, as we live our authentic lives, surrounded and uplifted by the love of God, as felt through the love of others.
I don’t believe there will be a cure for HIV in my lifetime. There may never be a cure, period. But when I think of what Jesus meant when he said that the faith of the lepers made them well, I’ve started coming back to, of all things, a verse from the Holy Book of Lady Gaga: “If I can’t find a cure, I’ll fix you with my love.”
On the days when I feel unclean, I remember that line, and I’m grateful, because I am being fixed by the love of others. This includes people like my boyfriend, who flew out to see me within a week of my diagnosis. It includes people like my friends, who comforted me, fed me and took care of me when I felt too weak and angry to do it myself. It is their faith that makes me well.
I have HIV. I will never be physically healed. But the spiritual healing? For that, I’ve got a team of specialists on my side. Not every HIV-positive person has that. But every positive person needs it–and if we truly believe in miracles of healing, we have to start opening the church doors to HIV-positive people like me.
If you are living with HIV, you’re not alone. Find information and support at hivanswers.com.
If you are HIV-negative and sexually active, consider getting tested regularly. Free HIV testing is almost certainly available in your neighborhood. Find your local testing center here.
PrEP is a once-daily medication for sexually active adults with a high risk of contracting HIV. PrEP can significantly lower this risk. If you are interested in PrEP, talk to your doctor today. If you are without health insurance or unable to afford PrEP on your current insurance plan, options are available and can be discussed with your health care provider. Find out more information about payment assistance here.