One woman's legacy

AIDS took another person last week.

Prudie was 41, and a member of my church in St. Louis. I remember her from Lenten potluck dinners when I was a child, but her community remembers her for more than that.

They remember her as an intelligent, funny woman who told people about her illness not to shock them or illicit pity, but to educate.

Prudie spoke to schools and groups about HIV and AIDS, but also to people she knew. My mom said that her courage was exemplified by talking to people at the church about living with AIDS, letting people she knew personally into that world, instead of educating only through the anonymity of panel speaking.

The church was packed to the gills for Prudie's funeral, a testimony not only of her impact at her church, but her entire community. She helped put a living face on a deadly disease.

AIDS is not a gay disease, a black disease, a Hispanic disease, or any other type of disease. It is a disease that kills without regard to a person's economic background, their social standing or sexual orientation. Yes, certain activities possess higher risks than others, but AIDS doesn't care how it got into your body.

The point is, it's there.

My mother also said that the minister did a wonderful job at the funeral, saying in no uncertain terms that AIDS is not a punishment for sin, a judgment from God or a means of penance. While she was probably preaching to the converted, that is a message that must be repeated. AIDS, or any other human affliction, is not the price of "evil" behavior.

No God worth believing in would do that to a person bestow an excruciating illness and death in exchange for a "sinful" action.

I often wonder about Pat, a grandmother living with AIDS whom I delivered meals to in high school. It's been five years since I saw her, and I wonder about her, her family and friends. Fortunately, like Prudie, Pat was surrounded by a compassionate family and worked with organizations that fought for people's rights against discrimination.

For instance, some landlords would try to avoid renting to people with HIV or AIDS, and some tried eviction or rent hikes as a method of keeping their renters "pure." Groups, like Doorways in St. Louis, made sure that didn't happen.

It makes sense that people are afraid of AIDS. Until researchers find a cure, it is fatal and treatments can have horrific side effects. People with HIV can be healthy for years, but the onset of AIDS is not a pretty thought.

But fear is not a reason to ostracize those with the virus or disease. Fear should spur people to find a cure, not act as a rationalization for cruelty to those who have it.

Science has demonstrated that casual contact, such as hugging, drinking fountains and breathing, will not spread the disease. Sharing needles, unprotected sex of any kind, and blood transfusions involve body fluids, the way HIV is transferred from one person to another. HIV-positive mothers can also transmit the virus to their fetuses.

Health care workers stress the need to use a condom whenever you even think about sex, and if you are going to shoot up, at least use clean needles.

AIDS makes debate about sex education in schools almost laughable. What reasonable parent would not want their children to have information about personal safety, which is what AIDS education is. We teach kids about the dangers of drugs, yet some still experiment. We teach kids about the virtues of abstinence, yet some kids still have sex. No one deserves to be ignorant of something that can kill them.

I realize that comparison is not perfect drug use is a choice, AIDS isn't.

Religion and AIDS education are not diametrically opposed. Spirituality should be about caring and embracing yourself and others, not about passing judgment and condemning others for their actions or health. Spiritual communities should reach out and help, not slap the hands of those in need.

Contracting HIV does not end a person's right or ability to live a full life, and their friends, family and strangers should know that. Life does go on, regardless of how shortened that life may be. People, with or without a life-threatening disease, deserve and need love and support and it is part of our humanity to recognize and fulfill that need.

I just hope Prudie knew how much her life, as well as her death, meant.

Sarah Garrecht is Wildcat editor in chief and a journalism senior.

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