World AIDS Day: Loving Without Prejudice

Date: Dec 2nd, 2018
Speakers: Rev. Joe Pang, Ken Cheung

Author: Alan Hau


1 Thessalonians 3:12
Mark 2:15-17


Ken is a social activist featured in many media outlets and has been an active contributor in the LGBTI grassroots movement in China and Hong Kong. He is the founder of “Rainbow China” a support group for the sexual minority in China as well as a resource for individuals and families affected by HIV.

Ken has been a close friend of the Church and Pastor Joe for almost a decade now. He is a carrier of the HIV virus and survived tough challenges in the past when the, now popular and effective, “cocktail therapy” was not available.

From being bed bound and emaciated at a hospital, tortured by AIDS, Ken learned many life lessons and had a unique chance to reflect on the fragility as well as the power behind life. Ken is now a survivor and a liberated individual who spends his life advocating for LGBTI rights and educating the greater audience in China on the real facts of HIV. Like the leper who was healed by Jesus (Mark 1:40-45), Ken takes on a special mission to tell others what has happened to him and how they can also live an abundant life even so.

The stigma has grown so deep in greater China and Asia. Many individuals suffer from deep unrelenting discrimination coming from themselves, their family and friends.

Homophobia is internalized and the culture encourages victims to hide their true selves to feign harmony. Carriers avoid facing the issue and many are terrified of their true self and afraid of living a life worth celebrating. The fear is so strong that its shadows haunt them throughout their lives. The repercussions are real and whereas new HIV cases are dropping in Western countries, it is becoming an epidemic in China and it is affecting gay men most acutely.

Transforming the individual to redeem the world

It is a fact that medication has improved so much in the past decade that AIDS is no longer a death sentence and people should no longer have the need to avoid treatment. The main reason that victims continue to avoid treatment is nothing other than discrimination and the feeling that life is no longer worth living. The problem is systemic across the country and the opinions they hear from the media and the government hasn’t been welcoming. Even the name AIDS in Chinese「愛滋病」metaphorically implies that it is a disease contracted through love.

Taking Susan Sontag’s literature on “AIDS and Its Metaphors” and actually implementing her ideas, Ken’s work is on public education and framing HIV in the most objective way. Only by showing what the disease is and isn’t, would the public stop associating cultural values like disloyalty and shame with HIV. These labels do nothing but endlessly magnify the fear and stop infected individuals from discussing the topic and finding treatment. The virus thrives on our fears of being honest and it is taking a massive toll on the country.

Individuals who are terrified of coming out and to face their HIV status would privately reach out to Ken online. He dispels the fear by presenting objective truths and showing them that a greater HIV+ community is actually living a normal life unlike what they imagined. Slowly their eyes are opened to the truth and, when they are ready, they become an ally in their community to become a resource for others in need.

Know Your Status

This year’s theme for World AIDS day is to “know your status”. The lack of awareness in China is an alert to all those at a high risk to contract this virus. Many people are still not familiar with the newest studies on the topic and cling on to the outdated and condescending information that gay men are solely responsible for spreading the virus. United Nations is leading the 90-90-90 campaign precisely to tackle this kind of misinformation.

  • By 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status.
  • By 2020, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy.
  • By 2020, 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.

Couples in a serodiscordant relationship (one partner is tested positive and another negative for HIV) are among the most misunderstood. Chinese tend to think that a virus carrier poses some sort of public health risk when research shows the risk of infection is close to 0 when the carrier uses antiretroviral therapy (ART) and has an undetectable viral load.

Culture Clash: Posthumous Weddings in Shanxi

We say “till death do us part” in western wedding ceremonies, but some cultures really take death to a next level. The importance of upholding a heterosexual family extends beyond life in some parts of China and some families perform mock weddings with real corpses to ensure a prosperous future for the extended family.

In the past, Ken had to go for an event to share his story at a city near the north of Shanxi, China. It baffled him when he learned that the audience worried about their families’ prosperity after their own death. People in their community have done ridiculous things such as stealing corpses to validate the mock wedding ceremony.

The distortion of human relationships to this degree and the lack of compassion is a challenge. Even Ken himself discriminates against them at first, but he returns to his faith to find that Jesus never minded sharing a table with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:15-17). Ken simply saw the HIV carriers’ need to be liberated from the burden of satisfying their family and the desperate need for a community leader to forge bonds of genuine love and acceptance between them.

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation of Advocates

Ken also meets individuals who made him proud of his mission when he sees them transform into leaders of their community pulling more AIDS victims and their family from the brink of despair. It is these moments when he feels that the Lord makes “your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

He once met a young man in his 30s from Lanzhou who contracted the HIV virus from his parents before he was born. He is financially constrained and grew up in a poor family. He didn’t receive higher education and his life is undeniably difficult, but he took his meeting with Ken very seriously. He dressed in a new suit and shoes out of respect. Ken was shocked by his formality and even more so when he took notes on their conversation.

He is now like Ken, a resource at his community for other AIDS survivors and for others in need.

The Spirit is Alive in All of Us

Ken’s faith has enabled him to walk this far despite the challenges. He feels the ever-present acceptance and love from God (Romans 15:7, Ephesians 4:32), which gives him the assurance in his mission and the courage to love those who are different from us. Being in constant battle with HIV physically, mentally and spiritually for two decades, he along with many other advocates already know where is the cure.

AIDS in Chinese,「愛滋病」, is not named so to remind us that love, 「愛」causes death, but genuine love and acceptance from everyone are the powers that systemically cures it.

Advent and being prepared for God

Some people ask Joe why he’s talking about AIDS in advent. The incidents aren’t biblically nor exclusively related to the LGBTQ community.

Some years ago, Joe thought to only preach about subjects related to faith and LGBTQ, because that’s the greatest area He saw the need and there were already several NGOs in town that provided the health information concerning AIDS.

A member of the church, who was 23 years old, perished in front of his eyes. The church held services for him and Joe didn’t understand why he had to take his own life in such a painful and agonizing way until one day Joe cried uncontrollably at the bathroom.

Joe didn’t see he was in so much fear and pain. It is easy to forget how fear can strike us so hard in the face that our only response is to freeze and cope with it by being irrelevant. Joe and the church community failed to see this pain behind him. Joe was unprepared.

Part of Joe’s vision of the church is for it to be a platform where topics on HIV/AIDS can be shared freely without judgement. The church currently hosts counseling services and acts as a HIV testing center that is available to the public.

We have seen many slogans from many NGOs in our struggle with HIV/AIDS, they didn’t work for China and we need to reflect.

The power of slogans is empty if we don’t act.

If we don’t want the empty slogans anymore, then as followers of Jesus we take up our own cross. To tackle the AIDS epidemic in China and Hong Kong is not something Joe can do alone as a pastor, nor does Ken. It isn’t some work that an NGO can accomplish alone so the rest of us don’t need to care about it anymore. We all share the responsibility here.

Open our hearts to others around us as we open them to our Lord, so we can sense the pain of others even as they are trying to hide them. Prepare yourselves to be the agents that transform this world.