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.
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
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
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."