Steven Pace

By Steven Pace, executive director, AIDS Interfaith Network

Today is World AIDS Day. Today is the 23rd year that this event will draw attention to the continuing pandemic of HIV/AIDS. Today HIV/AIDS has been with us for 30 years; and yet today every 9½ minutes someone in the United States will become infected with HIV.

During the first decade of the pandemic almost all my closest friends died of AIDS. I was with them as they died. Those who could speak said the same thing to me: “Don’t let my life and death be in vain … tell my story … use my life … use your life … to help other people and to keep others from dying like me.” In a final moment, they also said, “Remember me …”

This profound experience forever changed me and changed my life. Their words became my motivation, the passion that I still feel today: I have been working in HIV/AIDS care and prevention for 29 years. Each of these people is alive in me when I remember them and do what they have asked me to do — so through their words I reach out to you today.

Global leaders have pledged to work toward universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and care, recognizing these as fundamental human rights — and this is the theme of World AIDS Day 2010. While valuable progress has been made, HIV/AIDS has not gone away and greater commitment is needed around the world if the goal of universal access is to be achieved. Millions of people in our world are still contracting HIV. Here at home Dallas has the highest infection rate in the state of Texas and has the third-highest rate in the nation. These facts must surely awaken a response in our hearts and spirits. We must change them, so I ask you to join me today in pledging to work toward universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and care.

Today we will light the red candle that is the symbol for HIV/AIDS — it is a candle of remembrance; a candle of perseverance; a candle of hope. As we participate in this ceremony I hear the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that … Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. …” I encourage you to light a candle today to help bring light into the darkness of the denial, stigma, fear, poverty, and homophobia, violations of human rights and discrimination that still fuel the spread of HIV. Light permeates darkness — protection of human rights is fundamental to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Whether you are a person living with HIV/AIDS or one who is affected by HIV/AIDS, we are all living with HIV/AIDS. The story of HIV/AIDS continues to span the fullness of our shared humanity — the journey from remembrance to inspiration … from death to survival … from our capacity to harm one another with stigma and shame to our capacity to provide healing and compassion. HIV/AIDS is the ground on which Hope can be lost or nurtured. Today I call on you to nurture hope.

I realize that your experiences and understandings may be very different from mine, and likewise mine from yours. But rather than letting the enormity of HIV/AIDS overwhelm you, on this day I encourage you to embrace it even with the risks of grief or pain or uncertainty. Embrace it remembering the time when Silence = Death.  Embrace it understanding that Help = Hope. Embrace the past with remembrance while you embrace the future with longing. Walk forward with me today toward survival, inspiration, healing, and compassion … look forward with Hope.

We nurture hope together by caring, by getting involved, and by affecting change. Mahatma Gandhi taught us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Change begins with you and me — individuals who care enough to risk becoming involved in something that may break our hearts but that can be the best thing that we will ever do with our lives. Everyone can do something to help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS; therefore each one of us can make a difference. Begin today by lighting a candle and letting that candle be your symbol of hope, your act of remembrance, your inspiration and motivation to help bring change for tomorrow.

Through these years my faith has been a great strength to me, so let me share with you these words from St. Teresa of Avila: “God has no body now on earth but ours; no hands but ours; no feet but ours … through our eyes God’s compassion looks out on the world. ...” Today I remember my friends. Through my words hear their call to you and me. Let the message of World AIDS Day reach you today. Let the flame of your candle ignite passion in you.