The faith-based community has been called on to step up and make a difference in the fight against HIV infections in African Americans. Some churches, congregations, synagogues and mosques embrace the challenge. Others are keeping an arm’s length between themselves and the topic. BlacksAIDS.org contributing editor Sharon Egiebor discussed this divide with a minister, a church program director, a person living with HIV and a federal government employee, all of whom are working with individuals and corporate religion to draw leaders of faith into the prevention fold.
Their consensus is that prevention cannot continue to exist without the church, in whatever form individuals describe their religious beliefs and tenets.
National coordinator of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Faith Programs and HIV Partnerships.
Ali saw the need to include the church in the prevention message and then found a way to provide the funding.
“The faith community’s role is phenomenal and often understated,” said Ali.
“Traditionally, the faith community and its leaders have played a magnificent role in social issues and in establishing the development of working with marginalized populations. Its influence comes primarily from its access to the community, to individuals, to families, and on a frequent, regular basis. When you take that into consideration, one would be remiss to not include the faith community and its leaders in HIV prevention.”
These leaders should be engaged in conducting HIV prevention, spreading the HIV message and interacting with those who are affected and infected by HIV.
“I know they may not necessarily have the skills. It is a matter of learning how to do this. Business leaders have had to learn how and government institutions have had to learn how to deal with people who are affected and infected. It is a learning process, and it depends on where you enter into the fight. I’ve never bought it that there is a certain way or that you’ll promote religion.”
Caring is usually the first step, said Ali, who began working with faith-based groups more than a decade ago.
“I’ve actually found that those involved with HIV prevention do so simply because they care,” said Ali. “The church is a model for other faith leaders to reduce stigma. You reduce stigma by demonstrating compassion for those infected and affected.”
Ali said the CDC is planning to form an alliance of national, prominent religious leaders to participate in HIV prevention. She is planning to invite 25 to 50 leaders from several faiths to join the alliance, which will be in place by the end of the year.
“I don’t think there are enough voices. I know faith leaders are learning how. They have said we do not know how to do that. It is a huge job…especially when they are used to helping Mother Mary get food or keep the lights on or helping Deacon Jones with something else.
“This requires faith leaders to think about, to dialogue about, to share concerns about sexuality. Sexuality is something that is intimate and they have not necessarily have had to do that in a proactive way. HIV prevention requires a proactive approach and you have to learn how to do that.”
Ali said faith communities must understand that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not over.
“The faith community is one of the most viable venues or settings for HIV prevention. If were are really going to have the impact that’s needed, we must make sure they are included to make a good fight and that we understand the value faith leaders can bring.”
Dr. Jacqueline Hampton
Coordinator and project planner for Metropolitan Interdenominational Church Technical Assistant Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Hampton says ministers are conflicted when it comes to ministering to people living with HIV/AIDS.
“You have to have the conversation in terms of theological comfort. They are wrestling with sexuality, sin and theology,” said Hampton. “We meet them where they are. Do you think it is possible that you can buy gas for the van to help people without condemning? Often they will say yes.”
She recommends clergy look at those with HIV as human beings who have a disease, and at HIV as part of the whole spectrum of diseases affecting African Americans.
“When you have a health fair and are screening for other diseases, have HIV testing,” she said. “If you’re uncomfortable with that, have some pamphlets you can hand people or be willing to refer them to someone. This way, you can say, ‘I’m not comfortable discussing the issue, but I can refer you to someone.’”
Metropolitan, formed in 1981, offers several support programs for its congregants, including a wellness center, alcohol and drug coordination, a spiritually-based HIV/AIDS prevention program, a methadone maintenance program, a capacity building program, primary care clinic and a child advocacy program.
Hampton said the capacity building program has worked with more than 200 churches nationwide in the past five years, helping most of them have some input in HIV prevention.
The church’s senior pastor, Rev. Edwin C. Sanders, II, said some folks think Metropolitan is a mega-church with thousands of members, a fancy dome and televised services. In reality, he said, it is a small place with 350 members, half of what it was before several members who didn’t support the vision drifted off. What remains, he said, are the committed workers.
In 1992, Sanders committed to preach about HIV/AIDS each Sunday for 52 weeks, following a meeting with the Balm of Gilead, a national faith-based organization in Harlem.
The secret to the church’s success, he said, is surrounding himself with people smarter than he is, and then dividing the work load.
Rev. James Suber
Director of Life Ministry at Hillside Chapel and Truth Center in Atlanta and program director for Atlanta AIDS Interfaith Network.
Suber says HIV is just too personal for most churches in the South, many of which are very conservative.
“The church has been very uncomfortable with dealing with HIV because of behavior and sexuality. They take the view that it is a negative sexual behavior associated with HIV,” said Suber, who received his theological training at the Interdenominational Theological Center on the Morehouse College campus. “Ministers are not prepared to deal with sexual connotations and sexual issues in the church, no matter how much training they get.”
His senior pastor, Dr. Barbara Lewis King-Oatly, came to the church after a career as a social worker. Her experience, he said, is one of the reasons that the 7,000 to 10,000- member congregation has 33 auxiliary programs and a strong HIV/AIDS ministry.
“We are a new thought church that came out of Unity of Church of Religious Science,” he said. Super explained the theology of “new thought” churches, saying, “We get into metaphysics to explain behavior and changes that go on in our life today.”
“Pastors do not survey their congregations enough to get a feel for whether or not they should deal with this,” he said. “Then we have the pastor who says, ‘I don’t want someone to think that we are comfortable with that and we would start allowing other people of other persuasions to come into the church–the gay community. If we do, then we’ll have to have a gay alliance or an AIDS program, and I am not comfortable with that.’”
Suber said attending seminary often perpetuates a lack of empathy for diverse populations. “When you go to seminary, you get this intellectual understanding of what religion is. You don’t study diversity or empathy classes–at least not at the protestant seminary classes I attended,” he said. “The majority of guys focused on having a big church, a big car and a big home, not outreach, not social programs, not faith-based initiatives.”
This mindset, he said, leaves a lot of hurt people within the church.
He gave as an example a conversation he had with a pastor who has 15,000 members in the Atlanta area. The minister says he accepts gays but not homosexual behavior and that his congregation is clear about its beliefs. When approached by the Atlanta AIDS Interfaith Network about developing an outreach program, the minister declined the offer.
“I have some of his congregants come to me for counseling. The congregant said, ‘My pastor loves me as a gay man, but not as a homosexual. So what do I do with these feelings I have?’
“You have this person who will probably end up with some mental health issues, if he stays there,” Suber said.
Volunteer for CHAMPS, a New York City-based HIV/AIDS mobilization project and a coordinator for the national Campaign to End AIDS.
Last year, Dillard returned to her native Fort Worth, Tex., after living in Los Angeles for 19 years.
Her mother’s illness prompted the move, but she almost didn’t stay. “I started to go back to Los Angeles when I found out the how people with AIDS were treated in Fort Worth. I felt like I was traveling back in time,” said Dillard. “I found a lot of stigma.”
She stayed because her family said they missed her. But she joined a predominantly white congregation. “They understand me more and they respect more. I wouldn’t deal with the stigma in the Black church. [At the new church,] they don’t judge you. You don’t have to be a ‘Ms. It.’ They accept you from where you are. … They actually show the love of God, regardless of your situation.”
Dillard said she became empowered while living in Los Angeles and learned a lot from working with several prominent AIDS organizations.
“I learned from these women and…these people helped me to grow. I now can commiserate with those less fortunate women. I really grew in Los Angeles to where I can stand on my feet in Fort Worth and know that I can make a change.”
Part of making change in the community is making herself available to mentor to other women.
“I don’t care where a person is. It is not easy getting an HIV diagnosis. It was hard for me then and it is hard now. I can care. I can be there for them. I know what they are feeling. I can hug you. You can cry on my shoulder. When I got diagnosed, I didn’t have a shoulder to cry on.”
Dillard said she’s been in Fort Worth for a year now and was able to find an apartment that was financially supported by Samaritan House, a nonprofit agency that provides housing and support for people and families infected and affected by HIV.
“I’ve got a wonderful life in Fort Worth and I know that [my family] missed me. I didn’t want to come home at first,” said Dillard.
“I’m 51 years old. I got infected at 36 and I didn’t think I’d live to be 40. I know that I’m blessed and that the Lord has me in his hands,” she said. What she does, is “all for my Lord and Savior. It makes me want to share my love for others.
“I didn’t go home at first. With that great support from my family, I know that I can soar.” This fall, she’ll help organize a group from San Diego that is participating in the national Campaign to End AIDS, where thousands will converge on Washington, D.C., to encourage the government to increase AIDS funding and research.
Sharon Egiebor is a BlackAIDS.org contributing editor and owner of Egiebor Expressions in Dallas, Tex.