RuralRob lecture at St. George's United Church April 2005

On April 17, 2005, RuralRob was a guest lecturer at St. George's United Church in Peterborough, Ontario Canada. Rob's talk was about AIDS reflecting Rob's long time involvement in AIDS activism. He has consented to share his notes for the "sermon":

"Good morning folks. Its such a nice day out there maybe I should be out gardening today or something. Because you see, I should confess right away I'm not a regular churchgoer at all. I'm not affiliated with any church in fact. But I'm most glad to be here, because I have a rather soft spot for the United Church. I had a great time a few months ago talking to the good people in the congregation at Westwood, about half way between here and where I live in Warkworth. What a nice little church that one is in Westwood, by the way. Anyway, today my gardening can wait.

My name is Bob Leahy and I'm past chair of PARN - which some of you may know as the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network. We're based in Peterborough of course, down at 159 King Street, but we actually serve the four counties of Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland and Haliburton. We care for people living in our area with HIV/AIDS and we also do lots of prevention and education work in our service area. We have a food bank and a very active needle exchange program too. We have a staff of seven full time people and a ton of volunteers and we get our funding from both the federal and provincial levels of government as well as from fundraisers like the AIDS Walk which you may have heard of.

I was really pleased to get the message from your minister that you'd like a guest speaker to talk about AIDS today. It's a credit to her and to you that you want to hear about this topic at all. So many people have turned their backs on it, all over the world - and I'll talk about that later - so I'm proud of you all for welcoming me in to your church today.

You know some of us - not me, but some of us - have been doing this work for almost twenty five years now. And I think it's important to celebrate our successes and not just look on the dark side. Collectively, we've responded to a devastating illness with courage and responsibility and radical changes of behaviour. We've developed a community response, initially in the gay community but now much wider in scope, which is a model for community-based heath care everywhere. And here at home, while we haven't found a cure, and aren't even close yet, the pharmaceutical industry has developed medicines which are keeping people - or most people in the developed countries- alive very much longer

And I've got something to celebrate too. I'm one of the lucky people. I was diagnosed HIV positive in September 1993 - almost twelve years ago now. And, surprisingly I'm still alive. That's not really what I expected to happen, because in 1993 there weren't any treatments that were the least bit effective. People died as a matter of course. So I was devastated, believe me, when I got the news. I made my will, took what I thought would be a last visit to my birthplace in England and did all those things that people do when they think their time is running out.

Now, twelve years later here I am. I take a battery of pills - and twice-daily injections - and I'm reasonably healthy. I'm not working now - that's not something I think I can do and still stay healthy - but I do a lot of volunteer work and look after myself.

You might be wondering how a nice guy like me got HIV positive in the first place. I'm a banker after all, I spent most of my life working in a management position with the CIBC in their Head Office in Toronto. Well, I used to include the story about how I became HIV positive whenever I did public speaking like this. But now, as I get older and wiser, I don't do that . And I don't do that for a good reason, and I'll tell you why. I firmly believe it doesn't matter how people got the disease. We don't - or we shouldn't - make distinctions between people who got it from tainted blood transfusions, for instance, and those who got it from sexual behaviour. I don't think in either case you can possibly say, people deserved it. The point is, people who have the disease need care and support and treatment in a non-judgemental way and don't need to be discriminated against or shunned or made to feel like second-class citizens. That used to happen. It's better now.

I don't believe in good diseases or bad diseases either. We take what we are dealt with in life and deal with it. Hopefully in a good way rather than a bad way. I dealt with it by leaving work - after trying to juggle AIDS and corporate lending business rather unsuccessfully for six months. But then I saw that movie "Philadelphia" with Tom Hanks, and if ever a movie can change one's life, that one did. Because I realized the impossibility and futility of trying to keep a situation like this hidden; I just couldn't do it. I couldn't lead a secret life.

So I fessed up and told them I had AIDS and left work and went on long term disability. And, as it happens, did some smart things too. Like moving from Toronto to Warkworth. Like getting a couple of dogs. Like taking up painting and later photography. A whole lot of "me" things. But also most importantly, becoming a volunteer and becoming an activist and an advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS.

And it was because of that I also became interested in the scope of the epidemic and realized what a crisis this world is facing. It's a crisis on many levels. First of all the numbers are staggering. 40-42 million people are infected with HIV right now - many of them don't even know it, don't even know they are going to die. Why are they going to die? Because treatments are so expensive that only the richest countries in the world can afford them. You've heard of survival of the fittest Now we're in the era of survival of the richest. And isn't that an ugly concept, don't you think?

Globally, nine out of ten people who need treatment aren't getting it. Mostly those folks are in sub-Saharan Africa. Don't kid yourself; if the world cared enough they could be getting treatment. They really could. It would cost a lot of money, but they could.

Twenty million people have died in the epidemic so far. People are dying at the rate of 3.2 million a year. Many of them are children. Many women too - almost half new infections in the world are women now. (This isn't a gay disease believe me.) Many of them leave children behind. Africa is becoming a nation of orphans.

But if this is a crisis of numbers surely it's also a crisis of faith. Of ethics. Of morality. Because how come the "civilized world" stands by and let's this happen? How come it doesn't even make the newspapers. We devote front page news to things like the flood in Peterborough because it inconvenienced us. We devote front pages to the SARS epidemic because that was considered serious and it killed a couple of dozen people here in North America. We devote front page news and trillions of dollars to fighting the war on terrorism. We ring our collective hands and raise a ton of money for tsunami relief. But what about the war on AIDS. I don't think I've read a front page story on AIDS in years. That's frightening!

Meanwhile 60 people have died - tragically, unnecessarily - just in the last ten minutes from AIDS while I've been talking to you

Stephen Lewis - a former Canadian politician as you all know - and now the UN's Special Ambassador on HIV/AIDS - describes the current situation as unconscionable. He's right of course.

What's needed to turn this around? Money of course, tons of money. In Africa, they can't afford right now to spend more than about 40 cents a year on health care for each person infected with HIV. That's ludicrously short of what's needed, of course. We need to channel lots of money to these countries. You can do that through the Stephen Lewis Foundation if you want. But perhaps more important, we need to care. And care deeply. And share our concern with our friends and our colleagues and our government representatives. Because this epidemic is really too big for private citizens acting individually to make much of a dent in. We need to engage governments above all.

The faith community has a role to play in all this I think. It's the conscience of the community. It's based on Christian principles of caring and compassion and helping one's fellow man which is exactly what's needed here.

Let's not be too preachy about it either, as some have done. Let's not promote abstinence as the only solution to ending the AIDS crisis, because believe me that's not going to work - here or anywhere else. Let's not deride the use of condoms as some faith-based organizations in other countries do. Let's not let the drug companies get away with earning record high profits on vastly overpriced medications while millions who can't afford them die. Mine cost about $3,500 a month. That's unethical and it's wrong.

I said earlier I started off as a banker and ended up as an AIDS activist. I know you wouldn't want me to talk here about being a banker - I can't think of anything much more boring, honestly - but I'm so grateful that I've had the chance to stand in front of you as an AIDS activist and bring this message to you here. That's an opportunity I cherish and appreciate more than you can know. I want to thank Julie for inviting me - thank you Julie - and I want to thank you folks here too for listening - and hopefully caring. Because caring is where it all starts.

Thank you my friends and God bless."


ruralrob Church lecture