Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?
This is the Bible verse upon which Pernessa Seele founded her organization 12 years ago. While working in Harlem Hospital during the 1980s, Seele was shocked by what she saw unfolding. The almost hopeless death coming at the hands of HIV and AIDS surely gripped her, but that’s not what ultimately moved her to act.
What really pushed her was the communal response to that devastation—or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Why, she asked, was her community reacting so differently to this crisis than it had to all of history’s previous assaults on Black life? From slavery to economic injustice, African Americans have always rallied around one another to defend against the world’s onslaughts. So why were these Black men and women dying alone, in shame? To Seele, a person of faith, the answer was clear: the central role played by the Black church in all of those previous crises was missing from this one. And so, she founded The Balm in Gilead.
The Balm in Gilead’s mission would be to encourage Black religious figures and institutions to assume their indispensable leadership roles in stopping HIV. Seele understood that in a population where 80 percent of people count themselves as church members, no problem could be truly addressed without the faith community’s participation.
“There is no doubt that the link between HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and sexual activity has been a stumbling block for churches who feel that such behavior is contrary to their tenets,” Seele told Kujisource (a publication of the Black AIDS Institute) in a March 2000 interview. “Fortunately, increasing numbers of churches are realizing that providing AIDS education and social services is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Clearly, Jesus’ actions on behalf of the sick show us how we should behave during this age of AIDS.”
The years since The Balm in Gilead’s 1989 launch have witnessed a sea change in how the African American faith community deals with HIV/AIDS. It’s a point Seele thinks not enough people recognize. The time for beating up on the Black Church for its slow start has long passed, she says. Now we must support the hordes of religious figures who have taken the lead. Over 10,000 churches in the U.S., Africa and Caribbean participate in The Balm in Gilead’s annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, giving it access to an estimated 2.5 million church members and making it one of the largest AIDS awareness campaigns targeting Black communities.
Over the years, Seele has traveled from coast to coast—and around the world—educating clergy and cajoling church leaders into founding AIDS ministries for their congregations. Her organization provides training for not only those ministries but also for schools and other nonprofit organizations through its Black Church HIV/AIDS National Technical Assistance Center. It also produces educational materials ranging from publications on HIV prevention to videos such as its Emmy-winning Jessye Norman Sings for the Healing of AIDS. For all of these reasons, The Balm in Gilead is the only AIDS service organization endorsed by every major Black denomination and caucus. Seele believes these accomplishments come from her and others’ ability to work through faith. Her mantra is clear: Prayer and education change things.
The Balm in Gilead’s website, which is designed to link Black churches around the world and to create a network peer education and support, offers one such prayer:
There are brothers and sisters in my community
that are in desperate need of healing—healing
from the ravages of HIV and AIDS. We don’t
even know who they are. Some of them are
Walls of silence keep us apart. Many are fearful
to speak the name of HIV and AIDS.
God, bring us all to a truly safe place filled with
compassion and understanding. Bring us all to
this place of safety; that the church may embody
your spirit of protection and healing.
What part do I play?
Show me the way to make a difference.
Guide my hands to hold the first hand.
Open my heart to receive the first hug.
Remind me that you have chosen me. I can help.
God, awaken the spirit within me.
The Spirit that is mine is yours.
Your Spirit refreshes the soul with serenity.
Your Spirit embodies the heart with courage.
Your Spirit charts our right course with wisdom.
Help me break down the wall of separation
within our community. Help me build bridges
of love and understanding. Help me sweep
away the debris of the isms, phobias, broken
connections, and shattered hopes.
Prepare my heart to prepare your way.
Encourage me to think the first thought, to
make the first sound, to speak the first word.
Help me break the silence.