Rev. Edwin C. Sanders, ll
The church founded by Reverend Edwin C. Sanders, II has been called a lot of things—the AIDS church, the crack church. But one thing you won’t hear it being called is a church without compassion. That’s because the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church of Nashville, Tennessee, welcomes all of God’s children. And in the case of Persons With AIDS, it means those dealing with the disease have a place to go for much-needed support and social services.
“We push inclusion on all levels,” said Rev. Sanders, who goes by the title Senior Servant. On the AIDS front, that inclusion began early in the 1980s when most of the world assumed this “strange new disease” was only a problem for white gay men. Not Rev. Sanders. Near the beginning of the pandemic, a founding member of the church died of AIDS-related complications and it wasn’t long before Rev. Sanders began to put together the pieces of a very deadly puzzle. “It was clear to me that this was a disease that was going to impact the most vulnerable in our society, those that didn’t have adequate health care, those in poverty, those lacking quality education. We also saw this as a disease transmitted through bodily fluids, so we knew those using drugs were at risk. We started talking about AIDS as a black issue early on.”
That dialogue helped create an atmosphere where PWAs were welcomed in the church and eventually led to the formation of the First Response Center, a battery of eight ministries serving the underserved of Nashville. The Wellness Center is the oldest and largest ministry of First Response. Widely known as Middle Tennessee’s leading church-based AIDS service organization, it provides case management, counseling, emergency housing, primary care, and other services for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
MetroCan is the First Response Center’s outreach and prevention ministry, designed to reduce risky behaviors while encouraging stability in important areas in one’s life: housing, employment and mental health, just to name three. Another ministry, the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church Technical Assistance Network is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and helps other faith-based organizations and community-based organizations by providing information, consultation and ongoing training to improve the effectiveness of HIV prevention services.
Other ministries of the First Response Center include Men of Faith, Men of Color, a program whose primary goal is reducing the transmission of HIV among gay and bisexual men through education, fellowship and community service, and the Davidson County Harm Reduction Program, which takes aim at reducing the spread of AIDS among injection drug users. There’s also the Dinah Project (dealing with sexual violence), Parents Assisting Children to Achieve (a child advocacy program), and an Alcohol and Drug ministry.
A graduate of Melrose High School in Memphis, Rev. Sanders received a BA in Anthropology from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1969. He specialized in Cultural Anthropology and his thesis was entitled “The Black Church as a Revolutionary Institution.” Rev. Sanders’ professional life also began at Wesleyan, where he was Co-Director of the African American Institute and later became a member of the university’s Board of Trustees. He has also traveled extensively throughout Europe and Africa and done graduate work at the divinity schools at both Yale and Vanderbilt.
In Nashville, Rev. Sanders has made a difference in many capacities, with stints as Pastoral Counselor for the Meharry Medical College Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, Director of the Southern Prison Ministry, and Dean of the Chapel at Fisk University. He is also a member of the Alcohol and Drug Council of Middle Tennessee. Rev. Sanders also holds membership in the Nashville branch of the NAACP and is a former president of the Interdenominational Ministers’ Fellowship.
In addition to his work with substance abuse, the Reverend’s resume of AIDS-related work is quite thorough. In addition to being on the board of the Black AIDS Institute, he is past chairman of the Ryan White Community AIDS Partnership and still an active member of the consortium. In 1998, Donna Shalala, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, appointed him to the CDC Advisory Committee on HIV and STD Prevention. He also participated in the “Healthy 2000” Progress Review conducted by Dr. David Satcher, United States Surgeon General, and was a presenter at the 1998 World AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, as well as the 2000 conference in Durban, South Africa. He continues to speak about AIDS and substance abuse issues at conferences and other forums throughout the United States.
“We’re more and more becoming a people who are inclusive,” he said with optimism about the future. “As a people, we are growing and getting stronger in our ability to deal with the tough issues of life.”
Perhaps the greatest evidence in his personal life to support Reverend Sanders’ assertions is demonstrated by two occurrences in 2002. He was appointed by President Bush to serve on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and was also a gubernatorial candidate for of the state of Tennessee, finishing third out of a field of fourteen candidates.