HIV & Religion: How The Church Can Help You Heal

woman holding a cross in her hand Receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis is very difficult. For some people, the emotional aspects of HIV are as overwhelming as the physical aspects. HIV affects the whole body; physical, emotional, and spiritual. Particularly in the Black community, where church is such an important aspect of life, HIV, religion, and spirituality are often entwined.

Research shows that people seek out religion and spirituality after an HIV diagnosis. In fact, newly diagnosed people report being both more religious, and also feeling alienated from the church. According to one study, people with HIV avoided church services because of prejudices against homosexual men and women, especially in regard to their sexual practices.

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This discomfort results in some people seeking out alternative ways to express their beliefs and spirituality, sometimes by exploring non-Christian religions. Ultimately, if that doesn’t work, people turn to spirituality on a personal level in the form of private prayer or meditation.

Why Me: The Role of Religion & Spirituality in an HIV Diagnosis

After being diagnosed with HIV, a person may ask “why”? For answers, some turn to their family, others talk to doctors or mental health professional. Depending who you talk to, you will get a different answer to this question.

There are different opinions, of course, even within religion itself, due to the differences in how spirituality and religion are defined:

Spirituality – One way of viewing spirituality is that it connects the past to the present. This connection to ancestors, their beliefs, and their practices all guide the present. This school of thought says actions of today are based on lessons learned from the past. In this way, spirituality tends to be unique to each person.

Religion – While spirituality is a connection to the past, religion is a connection to a higher power or entity. Religious institutions such as Catholicism or Judaism worship a God in a very structured, regimented way. The means of worship is the same for everyone in the congregation. However, religion can also be a personal practice using prayer, meditation, or reflection as the means of worship.

Additionally, some believe that spirituality and religion are one in the same. Many people use the term “spirituality” to avoid the stigma and prejudices that sometimes emerge in organized religions. The is particularly true for HIV+ gay men.

A Redefinition of Your Purpose in Life

After an HIV+ diagnosis, many people begin to look at their lives in an effort to understand why they got HIV. This is an opportunity to examine the past, taking stock of one’s life up to the point of diagnosis and trying to figure out where life will take the person after their diagnosis. Many use religion and spirituality to help with this examination, as well as to apply what they have learned to their new life with HIV. Simply put, many people use spirituality and religion to help redefine their life, or give it a new meaning, after their HIV diagnosis.

Just some of the conclusions people come to include:

I Will Live a Better Life – An HIV diagnosis is often the stimulus needed for a person to get in touch with areas of their lives that need changing. HIV can be the push people need to make positive changes in their life. For instance, the IV drug user who gets HIV from sharing needles devotes their life after HIV to helping people kick their drug habit. If not for the HIV diagnosis, they might still be abusing drugs.

I Will Embrace A New Me – Understand Who I Am – Consciously or unconsciously, people use their illness as a way to better understand their spirituality and themselves. People struggle trying to be the person they were before their diagnosis. Spirituality helps incorporate their illness into their life, accepting the changes that result from illness, and to embrace the new version of themselves. Spirituality and religion teaches a person there is significant meaning to their life even after diagnosis. Spirituality helps the person let go of those things that were once an important part of their life before diagnosis but no longer fit their life after diagnosis.

I Will Search for the Right Answers To My Questions – A diagnosis of HIV causes fear of the illness itself, fear that there will be suffering, and fear of what the future holds. The fear of illness and prognosis prompts questions. People often find that the very nature of spirituality and religion can hold the answers to those questions. Answers give the person a better understanding of their illness and themselves. Simply put, for those with spirituality, fear promotes healing and emotional calm.

Again, an HIV diagnosis is not easy. It’s terrifying, it’s frustrating and it’s upsetting. Unfortunately, just as there is currently no HIV cure, there’s also no 100% guaranteed method of dealing with finding out you’re HIV positive. But whether comfort and guidance comes from a family member, a friend, a doctor, or your church, the most important part is to find the healthiest way possible to come to terms with your life…and to embrace the power of hope for a healthy and rewarding future.

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