“IS THIS OUR CONCERN?” HIV/AIDS and International Seventh-day Adventism

Ronald Lawson

Department of Urban Studies

Queens College, CUNY

A paper read at the meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Pittsburgh, August 1992

For PDF Click here: AIDS and International Seventh-day Adventism.

The Problem

Summers were a time of fear during the polio crisis of the ­1950s–but Seventh-day Adventists were at the forefront of ­treating the disease. Indeed, their work so impressed a prominent ­Ohio family that they donated a 400-bed hospital in suburban ­Dayton to the church.[1] Why were Adventists so prominent in this respect? Adventist ­theology emphasizes “wholeness”, linking physical wellness, spiritual health and evangelism. These concerns led the Adventist Church to establish a major system of hospitals and clinics around the world, to advocate natural remedies and foster a vegetarian diet. The involvement of the church in the medical ­field has led members to enter medically-related occupations in disproportionate numbers. The early Adventist interest in water treatments prepared them well to treat polio victims.

Given this history, it is not unreasonable to expect that ­the Adventist church would once again take a prominent place in­ responding to AIDS, the new epidemic which struck in the 1980s. ­Not only did the Adventist concern with health, medicine, and­ public health and its widespread hospital system prepare it ­ideally to confront an international epidemic, but rapid growth ­of the church in Africa, the continent most ravaged by the­ disease,[2] and the new Adventist self-description as ­”the Caring Church” would seem to have demanded action. However, in the words of Bekele Heye, President of the­ Eastern Africa Division of the world church, “AIDS is not an ­Adventist issue!” [interview, 1990]. This statement typifies ­Adventist attitudes almost everywhere.

This paper explores the dynamics of the Adventist response ­to AIDS.

Research Methods

The research reported here is part of a large study of ­Adventism, which has included almost 3,500 in-depth interviews­ with church administrators, teachers, hospital personnel, pastors, students, and leading laypersons in 59 countries in all ­13 “divisions” of the Adventist world church. Of particular­ relevance to this paper were interviews with Adventists with AIDS ­and their parents, participation in the meetings and activities ­of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International (a support group ­for gay and lesbian Adventists), in the first AIDS conference­ organized by Adventists, and in a meeting of ARTA (Adventists­ Responding to AIDS), interviews with leaders and organizers of ­all these, and a survey of editorials and articles dealing with­ AIDS in Adventist periodicals.


1.The Adventist church has made no serious endeavors to­ mobilize in response to the epidemic. The church has not ­presented the issue to church members through dedicated sessions ­at camp meetings and in local churches. AIDS is not addressed­ seriously in the training of clergy, nor has it become a­ significant focus of instruction for pastors already in parishes­ or church administrators at any level. Neither is the issue being­ addressed systematically for youth, either in churches or in ­church schools and colleges. Members typically do not understand ­that there are already infected and impacted persons sitting in­ the pews; therefore, they are not asking what they can do to help­ them.

Consequently, the church has not raised its voice in­ advocacy on behalf of persons with AIDS (PWAs), it has not­ identified with those who cannot speak for themselves where there­ is a high incidence of the disease, such as among prisoners and­ the homeless, nor has it argued for treatment on demand for­ addicts. It has not established hospices for those who are ill­ with the disease. AIDS has not become a focus of its community­ service. Adventist clergy, unlike many from other denominations,­ are almost never involved in interfaith networks working with­ AIDS. The church leadership has made no attempt to organize a­ ­buddy system for members who are suffering from the disease. AIDS­ never became a focal point during all the hype about “the Caring­ Church” that occurred during the 1980s.

2.Members of the church in the USA are contracting and dying ­from AIDS. Two-thirds of the pastors of the large Southeastern ­California Conference of the church reported in 1989 that they­ were dealing with people with AIDS [Diaz, ARTA meeting, August ­1992]. In 1991 the Pacific Union, which covers California,­ Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii, was aware of 186 church­ members, among a total of 130,000, who had been willing to ­identify themselves as HIV-positive or as having AIDS [ARTA­ meeting, August 1992]. Four members of Sligo church, in suburban ­Washington, D.C., are acknowledged to have died as a result of ­the disease; the SDA Kinship quilt, which memorializes Adventist­ victims of the disease, currently lists close to 40 names.­ Moreover, many Adventist youth admit to engaging in at-risk ­behaviors: for example, a survey mailed to students in grades ­9-12 at Adventist schools in California found that 19.5% of the ­488 students returning questionnaires stated that they had­ engaged in heterosexual intercourse, a figure that rose to 36.0%­ of those aged 18 or older [Hopp, 1992].

3.Most Adventists with AIDS, rather than face rejection within­ their congregations, have silently slipped away without putting ­them to a direct test. Those who have remained have usually,­ though not universally, found that their churches failed the ­test:

Example 1:  When Randy was diagnosed with AIDS he sought comfort ­from three pastors in turn, who each told him he had no hope of­ heaven. Having been absent from church for many years, he ­persistently sought a congregation to call home, trying five in­ turn. He found that although he was usually received kindly when ­he informed pastors of his condition, they broke his confidence,­ so that word spread rapidly through the congregations, and in ­each case he was then asked to leave by prominent laypersons­ [Sligo AIDS Conference].

Example 2:  There have been several reports of persons dying of­ AIDS calling in vain for Adventist pastors to come.

Moreover, the families of Adventists with AIDS have been shamed­ into silence:

Example 3:  All four of the mothers of Adventists with AIDS whom ­I interviewed had kept the news of the illness of their sons, who ­lived far from home, secret from their pastors, their closest ­church friends, and the members of their Bible classes. Their ­fears of rejection caused them to play-act at church.

­Example 4:  The wife of an employee at the General Conference­ (church headquarters) was shunned at her church when word broke­ of her husband’s illness and subsequent death, her children in­ SDA boarding academies were so hurt by their treatment there that­ they withdrew from church attendance, and church leaders were ­loath to admit the cause of death of one of their own. Finding­ only rejection at her church, the wife turned to a non-Adventist­ AIDS recovery group where all the other members were gay, where­ she found real support [Sligo AIDS Conference].

4.Word has not gotten around the AIDS community that Adventist­ hospitals are the place to go, but rather the reverse, because­ Adventist hospitals have not gone out of their way to treat AIDS­ patients. Indeed, there have been reports of neglect and­ demeaning behavior towards them [Guy, Sligo AIDS Conference].­ Moreover, very few Adventist health practitioners are involved in­ a notable way with the disease.

The reasons given to explain this pattern include the fear­ of infection, moral disgust with these patients, and the risk of­ financial problems attendant on providing care for patients who­ often lack medical insurance yet may require long stays in ­hospital.

5.The Adventist church in Africa has done little to address ­AIDS: church officials there, especially the Africans, usually ­deny that many Adventists have contracted the disease and ignore­ its potential impact on the church. In fact, however, all ­indicators suggest that thousands of Adventists are already infected:

(i) New members have poured into the church in Africa,[3] especially in the­ areas around Lake Victoria,[4] where the incidence of AIDS has been especially high. Thus, even if it can be assumed that the Adventist lifestyle protects members from infection, this can­ hardly be expected to have acted retroactively for new members.

(ii) In fact, there is considerable evidence of widespread­ promiscuity among members there. A recent survey in a rural­ school found that one student in three was sexually active by age­ 13 [Zeromski, 1990: 27]. When Malamulo Hospital, a prominent ­Adventist institution in Malawi, tested all patients for HIV, it ­found 63% were positive, with the rate among Adventists similar ­to the population at large [Moyer, 1992]. Several of my­ interviewees in Africa reported widespread promiscuous sexual­ activity among male Adventists, including clergy and teachers.­ One visitor who recently examined AIDS and Adventism in Malawi ­found that the church there was regularly burying pastors and ­teachers who had fallen to the disease [Moyer, 1992].

(iii) Moreover, church hospitals are helping to spread the ­infection by using untested blood and dirty needles. They use a ­lot of blood for transfusions because of a high incidence of­ anemia from malaria and sickle cell. When I visited Western Kenya in 1989, a hospital director showed me a large refrigerator full­ of packets of blood, and commented that none of it had been­ tested for HIV. Subsequent questions to medical administrators­ confirmed that this situation was common among Adventist­ hospitals in Africa. Because of the priority given by the church­ in recent years to evangelism, medical supplies are so short that­ some Adventist hospitals, especially in Zaire, have only one ­syringe [Stober, Sligo AIDS Conference].

Fear of AIDS, and therefore of church members who are ill, ­ is widespread among African Adventists, for people are generally ­poorly informed about the disease. This is especially so in­ countries where it is already taking a heavy toll, such as ­Uganda. Yet Dr Samson Kisekka, then Prime Minister of Uganda, a ­prominent Adventist, and himself a medical doctor, assured me in ­1990 that AIDS was not a problem to the church there. And the­ medical secretary of the Eastern African Division preferred that Loma Linda University would sponsor a visit by its “Heart Team”­ rather than an AIDS conference, because he thought that the­ former would garner the church better public relations.

History and Analysis

Adventist theology has tended, in practice, to emphasize ­that God loves good people so this is what I must strive to be, ­ rather than God loves sinners of whom I am chief. In particular,­ the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment, which holds that a ­pre-advent judgment, in progress in heaven since 1844, will end ­by considering the living and sealing their eternal fate, has had­ the effect of encouraging members to be judgmental about­ themselves and others.

While polio typically struck children, who were seen as­ innocent victims, AIDS is a disease that has been associated with ­sin–sexual promiscuity and drug addiction. Adventism defined­ legitimate sex as that between married partners: masturbation was­ dangerous and multiple partners reprehensible. Its concern for­ health led it to proscribe legal drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, ­ and caffeine, and it also initially opposed the medical use of­ drugs; it is no surprise, then, that it is totally unsympathetic­ ­towards the use of illegal drugs.

There is a tendency among Adventists, then, to see PWAs as­ reaping what they have sown: that is, to view the disease as a­ judgment from God. It has also been interpreted as another “sign­ of the end” of world history, which will be cut short by the­ second coming of Christ. It was therefore unthinkable that Adventists would be numbered among those infected with the­ disease, and when it became clear that this was indeed the case, ­ it was natural to assume that they were “not really Adventists.”

Adventists have frequently asked whether homosexuality is­ the “unpardonable sin”: indeed, a leading theologian stated that ­”perhaps the majority of Adventists” have made this equation in­ their minds [Guy, Sligo AIDS Conference, 1990]. Church leaders­ were especially repelled by the early identification of AIDS in­ the U.S., the locus of church headquarters, as a “gay disease.”­ They were forced to face the reality that “homosexual” and ­”Adventist” were not necessarily mutually exclusive by the emergence in the late 1970s of an organization of gay Adventists, ­ SDA Kinship International. They responded in 1981 by throwing­ their weight behind a program to heal homosexuals–that is, the­ only homosexual acceptable to them was one struggling to change­ his/her orientation. They also broadened the “Church Manual” ­definition of “adultery” in 1985 to include homosexual behavior­ as a legitimate ground for divorce. And in 1987 they­ unsuccessfully sued SDA Kinship in an endeavor to dissociate the church from it by stopping it from using the church’s name­ [Lawson, 1992].

Since the church organization had failed to respond, the ­lead among Adventists in reaching out to PWAs was therefore left ­to despised Kinship. Its program has several parts. It has ­provided information concerning the disease to members since 1982 ­at its annual “Kampmeeting”, in its monthly newsletter, and in­ specially prepared brochures, and to clergy in a mailing to every ­pastor in North America in 1987. It provides emotional and­ spiritual support to members who are HIV-positive and who have­ developed AIDS through a confidential network of peers and, more­ generally, to those willing to be identified, at meetings and ­through interpersonal contacts. It provides financial assistance ­and housing to members with AIDS who are in need. It has also­ ­provided emotional and spiritual support for the parents, ­ siblings, and survivors of members with AIDS–for example,­ several of these have participated in Kampmeetings. Kinship has­ created its own quilt, memorializing members and other Adventists­ who have died of AIDS. This has helped members cope with their­ grief, and also, when its use has been allowed at church meetings­ concerning AIDS, has had the effect of raising awareness of the­ impact of the disease among church members in North America.

When AIDS was mentioned in Adventist periodicals during the ­early years of the epidemic it was almost always as a sign of­ moral decay and therefore of the imminent end of the world.­ Editors were reluctant to address PWAs more directly as objects ­of compassion or of relevance to Adventism. Thus, when the editor­ of the Journal of Adventist Education expressed a desire to­ publish an article on AIDS, her idea was torpedoed on the ground­ that it might lead people to think that Adventists had a large­ AIDS problem in their schools or churches. However, beginning in­ 1985, occasional consciousness-raising editorials began to­ appear. The first, in Ministry, the journal for clergy, was­ written at the initiative of an associate editor who had been­ moved by being asked to officiate at a funeral of a PWA. It drew­ parallels between leprosy in the days of Jesus and AIDS today, ­ urging that Adventists respond as Jesus had [Wade, 1985]. The­ general church paper, the Adventist Review, followed suit the­ following year.          A second phase consisted of articles giving readers­ information concerning the disease, usually in the context of a­ very general and wary, lest they offend, plea to show compassion.­ Once again Ministry led the way, answering questions such as

“Would you know how to counsel a parishioner with AIDS? Would you ­be afraid to? Should we ban the infected from church or assign ­them separate pews? How safe do we need to play it?” [Hopp, 1986]

Other periodicals with audiences that were seen as more at­ risk followed:

Message, aware of a growing incidence of AIDS in the Black­ community, sold out a run of 150,000 copies of a special issue, ­ “AIDS: A Compassionate Approach,” in 1989. However, although it suggested that readers act compassionately, it spoke only in the ­most general terms without mentioning gays and addicts. The­ editor later explained that this was because of church­ ­sensitivity to the issue of homosexuality in particular: to urge­ that such people be accepted and loved would be interpreted as approving their lifestyle. This issue was considered such a­ success that the editor was eager to prepare a sequel. However, a ­church committee judged the projected contents as too gloomy, and­ urged that they be made more optimistic! [Baker, Sligo AIDS­ Conference]

Insight, a periodical aimed at Adventist teenagers, also ran­ into difficulties in planning such articles because of clashes­ between the values of the buying (parent) audience and what the ­target (teen) audience would read and take seriously [Blake,­ Sligo AIDS Conference].

The Journal of Adventist Education eventually issued an ­article for teachers on answering questions concerning AIDS. This ­escaped the criticism that had been leveled at its earlier plan.

The third phase has included bolder challenges to action, ­with suggestions that attitudes and approaches within the church ­need to change. This was pioneered by Spectrum, an independent ­journal targeted at liberal, better educated Adventists, in 1987.­This issue featured a cluster of articles which explored the­ reluctance of Adventist medical personnel to treat AIDS patients­ because of fear of contamination and revulsion towards­ homosexuals. At the same time, the articles set out to develop reader compassion towards PWAs and urged them to act accordingly.­ Another Spectrum  article in 1990, authored anonymously by an ­expatriate health worker, traced the likely devastating, but­ previously ignored, impact of AIDS on the Adventist church in­ Africa: its growth rate would drop, its income would be sharply­ curtailed, its age distribution would change, enrollment in its ­schools would decline, its hospitals would be overwhelmed, it­ would suffer shortages of clergy and other employees and have to pay more to those it has in order to retain their services, and ­its compassion towards its ill, stigmatized members would be­ severely tested. The author then urged the church in Africa to­ take the epidemic much more seriously and compassionately ­[Zeromski, 1990].

An article written by health professionals in Ministry in­ 1989 asked “what does AIDS mean to a minister of the gospel?”

“Although sexual promiscuity and intravenous drug abuse are­ major factors in the spread of the AIDS virus, the church cannot­ merely oppose these behaviors. It must do something more. What­ ­does the church have to say about healing for the broken people­ who trade life for sex and drugs? … [It must] provide healing ­from loneliness, ostracism, and guilt. We must realize that gays, ­prostitutes, and intravenous drug users are Christ’s children­ also.

“…Black and Hispanic churches need to make commitments to­ their own young. Inner-city churches need to become refuges for­ the disadvantaged and those in despair.

“…Schools can accept students with AIDS who are physically­ and mentally able to benefit from school attendance.

“…What counsel are you able to give to parents of gay­ sons? … Avoid judgmental comments about the choices the son has ­made…[and] encourage parents to maintain contact with their­ sons as nonjudgmentally as possible.

“What if persons with AIDS attend your church? Welcome them. ­Shake their hands, give them a hug. Ask them to become members.­ Invite them to participate in foot-washing and Communion­ services. Bring them home to dinner…” [Elder, et. al., 1989:­23-25]

Another Ministry article in 1990 declared that a judgmental ­attitude towards PWAs was “an escape from the responsibility of­ caring.” It urged clergy to risk criticism and the emotional­ drain of becoming involved with PWAs, and listed many ways in­ which a congregation could become engaged [Stober, 1990: 20-24].

In 1990, the Adventist Review featured an article by ­Adventist AIDS activist, Eunice Diaz, who had been appointed to­ the National Commission on AIDS (see below). It too emphasized­ compassion and involvement.

In general, Adventist periodicals proved to be followers­ rather than leaders. The few articles they have published have ­not yet done much to break down prejudice towards PWAs or result­ in action. For example, one pastor of a large church set in the­ grounds of an Adventist hospital, who was one of the few to­ respond to Kinship’s mailing to all pastors concerning AIDS, ­stated that he had tried to teach his congregation about the­ epidemic and those infected by it:

“I am frustrated that our largely heterosexual congregation­ cannot seem to grasp either that AIDS is a disease that will­ effect them or that compassion and ministry are the appropriate­ responses to anyone who contracts AIDS.”

The other voices of the official church have yet to be­ heard. AIDS has not yet been included as part of the training of­ students at the Adventist Seminary. A recommended curriculum was ­prepared for Adventist schools when a health educator at the­ church’s Loma Linda University pushed hard for it. However, the­ use of the materials is not yet widespread because the textbooks­ ­are costly, many teachers are uncomfortable discussing the topic, ­ and administrators fear that embracing such a program will­ provide critics with ammunition. The health educator has recently ­strengthened her case by collecting survey data showing that­ significant numbers of high school students at Adventist schools ­in California are involved in at-risk behaviors. Her report­ recommends:

“Given the presence of at-risk behaviors among youth, AIDS­ education in the Adventist school system should be viewed as a ­worthy, desirable, and needed prevention opportunity and not as a ­defeatist and shameful acknowledgment that the education ­philosophy and system might have failed” [Hopp, 1992].

Although she agrees with the recommended curriculum, which would ­teach sexual abstinence, not “safe sex”, other lay experts have­ advocated that condoms be made available to students in church­ schools because “the kids are not listening” [Elder at the Sligo­ AIDS Conference]. However, school officials respond that if they­ were to suggest this it would cost them their jobs [interviews].

A few church members, other than those attached to Kinship, ­ have gradually become involved in the AIDS issue. The pre-eminent ­example is Eunice Diaz, who became active in 1981, almost as soon as the disease was identified, while working with the Los Angeles­ County Health Department. Later, while employed by the Adventist­ White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles, she tried to bring­ people together around AIDS. However, she was told to drop the­ issue because the visibility she was bringing the hospital was ­creating a negative image. As a result of this she resigned her ­position in 1988 and became a health-care consultant for­ government and private agencies. Within months of leaving the Adventist hospital she was appointed to the National Commission ­on AIDS, which advises the President and Congress on all matters­ pertaining to HIV and AIDS. She reports sadly that she has­ received no significant support from church organizations, and ­has been scorned within her congregation as obsessed with AIDS.­ Moreover, her overtures to church authorities emphasizing the­ need to train clergy concerning the disease, especially among­ racial minorities, and her offers to become involved in this, have been largely ignored.

“With the minimal response of our church, I don’t go around­ waving a flag saying I’m a Seventh-day Adventist” [Diaz, 1992:9].

A large number of other Adventists are involved ­professionally in different aspects of AIDS care. The church is ­not making use of them. They are often ashamed of the inaction of­ their church [Elder, ARTA meeting, 1992].

Most of the volunteer activists, frustrated with the lack of­ opportunities to be active within their church, have become­ involved with support organizations outside of it. There have ­been reports of this in several cities, from Vancouver, Canada, ­ to San Bernardino, California, to Washington, D.C.. Others have­ been successful in organizing AIDS support groups in two­ congregations. For example, some members from a congregation in ­Bakersfield, California, were moved to help PWAs after attending­ a lecture. They subsequently took Red Cross training, and then­ began providing food for meetings of an AIDS support group. When ­the latter’s meeting place was closed, they arranged for it to­ move its meetings to their church.[5]

In 1991 a nucleus of concerned Adventists in the Los Angeles ­region formed a new organization, Adventists Responding to AIDS ­(ARTA). It began when an Adventist architect, who was involved professionally with the building of an AIDS hospice, became very ­interested with the issue. He participated in a meeting at the ­home of Eunice Diaz when the General Conference expressed­ interest in developing a “Mission Spotlight” video concerning the­ involvement of the church with AIDS. He was horrified when those­ present agreed that the church had nothing to report, for they ­had been informed that 186 Adventists in their Pacific Union had ­been willing to identify themselves as having AIDS or being ­HIV-positive. Those present decided that if the official church­ was doing nothing it was time for laypersons to take an­ initiative:

“ARTA exists to be a ‘City of Refuge’ to those infected by HIV­ and to their loved ones. ARTA’s aim is to help provide peace by­ care, understanding and support, regardless of ethnicity, age, ­sexual orientation, nationality, or religious background.”

ARTA now has a total of 29 people on its mailing list, including­ its officers. It has established an 800 phone number, and has ­persuaded the Pacific Union Recorder to publicize this. More­ calls are coming from would-be volunteers than PWAs–it has­ tapped a well of concern among Adventists. It has also published ­the names of 60 (out of 285 polled) Adventist chaplains who­ answered a letter asking whether they could be listed as ­responding to PWAs non-judgmentally. There is poetic justice in­ the fact that Kinship has been able to help support ARTA’s phone­ bill–from the funds paid it by the General Conference to meet­ some of its legal expenses after the suit against it was decided­ in its favor.

A conference concerning AIDS and Adventism was held at Sligo ­Church in suburban Washington, D.C., early in 1990. The editor of ­the Adventist Review, Dr William Johnsson, having been greatly­ moved by the stories of PWAs told at a non-Adventist AIDS ­conference, had suggested that the Association of Adventist­ Editors organize a similar conference among Adventists. When he­ was rebuffed, he was able to arrange sponsorship by his­ periodical, the General Conference Health and Temperance­ Department, the Columbia Union,[6]  and­ the AIDS Concern Group of Sligo Church. The goals of the­ conference were to build awareness of the impact of AIDS upon the ­denomination by having Adventist PWAs tell their stories, to­ overcome the prevailing view among Adventists that PWAs had “made­ their bed and now must lie on it”, and to help the church begin ­to develop responses [Johnsson, interview]:

“I am calling for action. From our medical institutions; from our ­educational institutions, where curricula are needed to make the ­students aware; from our pastors, to help educate our people at ­the local church level, that they may be compassionate; from our ­editors, that they may take up the pen to make us aware,­ compassionate, that we may act” [Johnsson, AIDS Conference].

The desire of the organizers to have participation of­ Adventists with AIDS led them to incorporate Kinship, its­ memorial quilt, and praise for its singular response to the­ disease into the program. However, this participation was not­ revealed when the Adventist Review  reported on the conference to­ ­the world church–a report that nervously catered to Adventist­ homophobia when it stated erroneously that the conference had ­urged compassion “without supporting or condoning a homosexual ­lifestyle” [April 25, 1990]. Although this was the first­ Adventist conference addressing AIDS and the schedule of speakers ­included leaders in the field, attendance was poor (only 58 at­ the opening session), with the number of clergy, who had been ­urged to attend by the Columbia Union, being especially ­disappointing. A second conference the next year, with an­ even more impressive galaxy of speakers, which was sponsored by ­the church situated at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, also­ drew a poor attendance. Indeed, there was a much larger­ attendance at a college address given by Dr Lorraine Day, the ­daughter of an Adventist evangelist, who publicizes an extreme ­position reinforcing fear of HIV carriers. The vast majority of­ Adventists continue to regard AIDS as not their issue.

The Health and Temperance Department of the General ­Conference formed what became known as the General Conference ­AIDS Committee in 1987, bringing together heterosexual laity who were already heavily involved in dealing with AIDS in other­ spheres, members of health-related departments in church­ universities, and appropriate personnel from departments of the­ General Conference. By choosing to focus primarily on education­ to prevent the spread of the disease in the developing world the­ Committee was able to concentrate on promoting “moral” behavior­ and avoid dealing with homosexuals:

“[Adventists] have a very, very difficult time separating HIV and­ AIDS from transmission behaviors or groups. The majority of­ people in this country continue to be infected by gay or bisexual ­behavior. Because of this, the church will have a difficult time­ responding to the epidemic. I think that this has given cause for­ our extensive involvement in Africa….where AIDS is primarily a heterosexual disease. It is much easier for our church to work in­ Africa than in our country, and that comes from our lack of separating the person who is affected from how that individual­ became infected” [Diaz, 1992].

The lay members of the Committee became totally frustrated­ when they discovered that the structure of the church allowed no­ impact. When they voted a recommendation, it was usually killed from above. For example, when the Committee recommended that­ Adventist schools take a stand welcoming children who are­ HIV-positive, the head of the Education Department of the General­ Conference scuttled the suggestion in a department committee on the ground that children spitting on one another could pass the ­infection! Again, when the Committee urged that the church ­recommend that couples contemplating marriage take an HIV test, ­in an endeavor to give women in Africa dating new converts­ grounds for insisting, this was also defeated at higher levels.

The Committee did arrange an AIDS conference at Malamulo­ Adventist Hospital in Malawi, East Africa, which was aimed at ­government officials. The site was chosen because of the strong ­Adventist medical presence there and because the government at­ least admitted that AIDS was a problem. The funding for the­ conference was not funneled through the East African Division­ because it was feared that the medical secretary there would ­divert it to other purposes. Consequently, there was little­ follow-through to the conference, for the church administration­ in East Africa remained aloof.

The lay members of the AIDS Committee were especially­ embittered by its failure to place the AIDS issue on the agenda ­of the quinquennial session of the General Conference of the ­church in 1990. They then described the Committee as “a total ­waste of time.” Several of them concluded that the church was ­using them as window dressing–to make it seem as if it was­ responding somehow to the plague–and ceased attending meetings.­ The Committee ultimately collapsed when financial exigencies after the session forced the General Conference to make cuts in ­departmental personnel.

However, in 1991 the Annual Council of the General ­Conference voted to sponsor a new AIDS initiative, to be located ­this time within the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a church related development and disaster relief agency­ that focuses on the developing world. This focus would ensure­ that its concern would continue to be heterosexual transmission ­of the disease. ADRA finally appointed a part-time director nine­ months later, in July 1992.

Since ADRA is primarily a conduit for funds provided by ­governments, and funding is available for AIDS-related projects in Africa, it has already become involved there. It has now run ­several conferences there, where the prime thrust has been to ­prevent infection through the control of sexual behavior. When­ ­conferences have been held within the territories of the East African Division, the latter has insisted that all speakers be­ church members in order to ensure that condoms are not recommended­ as a means of preventing infection. However, some personnel in ­the division covering West and Central Africa are more flexible: ­ one unofficially appealed to heads of state to remove the 25%­ luxury import tax on condoms. ADRA is also, with funding from the­ Swedish government, providing screening and preventive education­ among international truckers and bar girls in Ghana. Danish funds­ are being used to develop a dramatic motion picture teaching the­ facts about infection by AIDS for French language television in ­West Africa. ADRA has also become involved recently in a ­prevention through education program in Thailand, which has been ­identified as having a major AIDS problem.


The response of the Seventh-day Adventist church to the AIDS­ crisis has been extraordinarily slight. The primary reasons why ­”the church has turned its back on the AIDS issue is because it­ cannot come to grips with the issue of homosexuality. The­ leadership of the church is afraid of becoming identified with­ something it finds embarrassing” [Diaz, Sligo AIDS Conference].

In this, the Adventist church is missing an important ­opportunity:

“AIDS is a particular challenge for Adventists because we claim ­that healing and caring are part of our mission. It is a­ challenge too because AIDS is largely a sexually transmitted­ disease–a subject where we could and should say much, where the­ wholeness of man is most vividly experienced. The theology, the spirituality of sexuality is natural for us, but they have ­hardly been touched. At a time when sex has been trivialized, we­ should stand up and say something fundamental, revolutionary, and­ Christian. We talk of the Second Advent, the beginning of an ­eternal future, and this is surely powerfully relevant to AIDS” ­[Guy, Sligo AIDS Conference, 1990].

It is, at the same time, failing a major test:

“Much of the discrimination against people with AIDS, shockingly, ­ claims religious foundation…. We must be part of the­ answer–good news–and not part of the problem. Some may think ­that this disease provides a natural occasion for the church to ­judge AIDS; ironically, and in the long run, it will be AIDS that ­judges the church” [Kevin Gordon, quoted by Stober, 1990:23].


1. The Charles F. Kettering Memorial­ Hospital.

2. There were more than two million church members ­in sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, making up 31.1% of the world­ membership.

3. An 83.5% increase in six years.

4. More than half of the church­ membership in sub-Saharan Africa is located in Rwanda, eastern ­Zaire, southern Uganda, western Kenya, northwestern Tanzania, and ­Burundi.

5. The second­ congregations group, at Sligo Church in suburban Washington,­ D.C., is discussed below.

6. The administrative unit­ of the church for the region around Washington, D.C.




Diaz, Eunice. 1990 “Adventists and AIDS: A Call for Compassion,” Adventist­ Review, Feb.1: 10-12.

Diaz, Eunice. 1992 “AIDS, Adventists, and America,” Kinship Connection,  :­6-12

Elder, Harvey A., Joyce W. Hopp, John E. Lewis 1989 “Challenges of the AIDS Epidemic,” Ministry, March:­23-26

Hopp, Joyce 1986 “AIDS: What should we Do?,” Ministry, September: 23-25

Hopp, Joyce 1992 “A study of Adventist academy students in California­ concerning AIDS at-risk behaviors.” Unpublished draft.

Lawson, Ronald 1992 “‘The Caring Church?’: The Seventh-day Adventist Church ­and its Homosexual Members,” a paper read at the meeting of the­ Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Washington, D.C., ­November

Moyer, Bruce 1992 “AIDS and Adventism.” Address, Greater New York ­Adventist Forum, October 10

Stober, Iris Hayden 1990 “AIDS Challenges the Church,” Ministry, September: 24

Wade, Kenneth R. 1985 “AIDS, Leprosy, and Love,” Ministry, September: 24

Zeromski, Andrejz 1990 “AIDS, Africa and the Adventist Church,” Spectrum, ­June: 27-34

[1] The Charles F. Kettering Memorial­ Hospital.

[2] There were more than two million church members ­in sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, making up 31.1% of the world­ membership.

[3] An 83.5% increase in six years.

[4] More than half of the church­ membership in sub-Saharan Africa is located in Rwanda, eastern ­Zaire, southern Uganda, western Kenya, northwestern Tanzania, and ­Burundi.

[5] The second­ congregations group, at Sligo Church in suburban Washington,­ D.C., is discussed below.

[6] The administrative unit­ of the church for the region around Washington, D.C.

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