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LWF Youth Delegates Push for Open Dialogue on HIV/AIDS

Moving Presentation Highlights Urgency of HIV/AIDS Crisis

WINNIPEG, Canada, 28 July 2003 - Choking back the tears, her voice quivering with emotion, Leonie Vries from Namibia told the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Tenth Assembly how she lost her best friend to HIV/AIDS.

The woman died of HIV/AIDS-related tuberculosis four years ago. She had been infected by her husband, who had died two years earlier after contracting the HIV/AIDS virus through extra-marital affairs. Their oldest child is HIV-positive and still alive. Their second child, a little girl, lived only up to the age of two years. The woman lingered for several years, growing thinner and weaker, with Vries as her volunteer caregiver. Finally, only 34 years old, she died.

The Assembly audience sat in solemn, respectful silence as Vries, 22, and the other 67 LWF youth delegates urged them to deal openly and directly with HIV/AIDS.

"Let us fully break the silence," said James Tan of Malaysia. "Let us make prevention a priority."

Graphically illustrating their point, youth delegates wearing black T-shirts stood silently on stage, their mouths crisscrossed shut with masking tape. Around their necks hung signs with the birth dates and death dates of nameless people. At the bottom of the signs in capital letters was the line: "Stop HIV/AIDS." Finally, on cue, the youth members removed the tape, symbolizing open communication about the dreaded disease sweeping across many countries.

The dramatic presentation on HIV/AIDS and homosexuality highlighted a youth open hearing at the LWF Assembly this morning (Monday). The hearing focused largely on the issues of HIV/AIDS and human sexuality.

The seriousness of HIV/AIDS was powerfully illustrated when audience members were asked to stand up. They were then told they represented the people newly infected by HIV/AIDS throughout the world within the past hour – 570 – about the same number as those attending the LWF Assembly. Nearly half of those who get the disease are young people, including children.

Finally, the audience was asked to link hands in a symbol of solidarity against the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

As one youth delegate put it: "We simply ask that we talk openly about this issue."

Many of the LWF youth delegates earlier attended a Pre-Assembly Youth Conference (PAYC) in Guelph, Ontario, July 12 to 18. They presented LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko with a collection taken at the PAYC meeting and asked that the money be donated to HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

Noko said in an interview afterwards he took the youth delegates’ message seriously.

"The message is clear and loud," said Noko. "We have to provide space for discussions at family levels, in confirmation class groups within the church, and also between adults in the other generation, particularly about sexual education."

Later, Vries said people must wake up to the reality of HIV/AIDS and the importance of treating its victims with compassion.

"AIDS is real. It doesn’t just happen to someone else. It happens to us all. Even if you’re not infected with the disease, you are affected," she said in an interview.

"The little time that we have with one another, we should show one another love. We should accept each other no matter what.

"It’s a very lonely world if you have it and nobody wants anything to do with you."

The LWF Assembly adopted several resolutions concerning youth. Delegates agreed to refer to the LWF Council a PAYC recommendation that a Youth in Church in Society secretary be hired regardless of financial considerations. Another resolution urging member churches to encourage the participation of youth in their worship and decision-making processes at all levels was passed.

The Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is taking place 21-31 July 2003 in Winnipeg, Canada, under the theme "For the Healing of the World." It is being hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

There are around 820 men, women and youth participants in the Tenth Assembly including 380 delegates from the 133 churches with full membership and three associate members. The Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the LWF, and meets normally every six years. Between Assemblies, the LWF is governed by its Council that meets annually, and by its Executive Committee.

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