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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

HIV/AIDS and the Black Church: A Retrospective!

By Rae Lewis-Thornton

March 7, 2012

This piece originally appeared in Rae's blog, Diva Living With AIDS.

Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS

People always got something to say about the Black Church and AIDS, like Black Churches are the only churches in the world. I was doing a radio interview just yesterday and one question asked, "Why was the Black Church slow to respond to AIDS?" HELLO, MOST churches, across denominations and the color line were slow to respond to AIDS.

Now let me be clear, it doesn't make it right, but it's the truth, and it's an honest look at AIDS and the church, especially the Black Church. I wonder if White AIDS Activists get asked, "Why was the White Church slow to respond to AIDS?" Just Sayin!!! There has been a double standard when addressing the Black Church and AIDS and their response or lack of response.

The thing is, many churches were slow to respond to HIV/AIDS in the United States. You have to remember, AIDS was scary. In those early days, we didn't even really know for sure how a person contracted HIV. All we knew was that primarily white, gay men were coming into the hospital with this stage disease. Even the medical community didn't understand.

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The first clinical name for AIDS was GRID, Gay Related Infectious Disease. So if the medical community believed this was something that only Gay men could get, why would the church be any different? Those early images of men dying with those purple spots were powerful and they scared the hell out of everybody. Even the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan refused to say the words out of his mouth. Even Cosmopolitan magazine declared that women with, "Healthy vagina's," couldn't contract HIV. For Real!

Now, on face value, Pastors thought it was some modern day curse from God. Now let me pause, Bible readers, don't act like God didn't curse people because God did, it's all through the Old Testament; But when Jesus came, as the Christian faith goes, Grace, took the place of a curse.

The understanding of God's Grace, should have been enough for Christian's, not just pastors, but ALL Christians to embrace people dying from AIDS, but shoot, you had doctors that didn't even want to touch people with AIDS. So being human, I think many pastors were living in the uncertainty of this strange disease, combined with their theological understanding of not just homosexuality, but also fornication and drug use. Maybe God was doing something new, pastors pondered. Maybe this was a sign from God of some sort. Pastors were paralyzed, stuck between their theology, humanness and God's Grace.

It was a dark period for the Church as a whole, but it was also a dark period for society as a whole. Mothers and Fathers allowed their children to die in hospitals alone. Doctors and nurses wouldn't touch people with AIDS and Funeral Directors would bury. In time, society began to open up, ease up and respond to AIDS differently and so did the church.

Let me back, up, for the record, I know churches in Chicago, who had AIDS ministries from the very beginning; Churches such as, Trinity United Church of Christ, under the pastorship of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright and Fellowship M. B. Church, under the pastorship of Rev. Dr. Clay Evans and that was huge for Rev. Evans, because, women couldn't wear pants in his church until around year 2000-2001. For Real!!

There were other ministers who were at the forefront early. Pastor Michael Jones in Indianapolis, Progressive M. B. Church; Whose church I've spoken at several times back in the 90's and Pastor Ed Sanders at Metropolitan Church in Nashville, Tennessee. I can go on and on naming Black Pastors who have and are dealing with the issue of HIV/AIDS.

You get the point? There were Black pastors that got it from day one and responded without fear and judgment. They responded with God's Grace rather than God's law.
While their have been other pastors, who have come along with the times.

So why is there more pressure on the Black Church than the church at large? No one challenged white Pastors on Civil Rights back in the day. That's what made Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from The Birmingham Jail so powerful, Dr. King put white pastors in the line of fire and challenged their faith on the issue of segregation. And quite frankly, not all black ministers where supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. When Dr. King came to Chicago, there were only two black pastors that would allow him to speak at their church. The same can stand true for the issue of HIV/AIDS, not all pastors are on board, but some are. However, it seems they never get any recognition.

So here we are today, 31 years into the AIDS pandemic talking about what Black Churches ain't doing about HIV/AIDS. I'm going on record and saying, Y'all need to lighten the heck up!

I have spoken at 100's of black churches in these last 20 years and I've arranged testing for HIV in many black churches. Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr., organized over 100 pastors to be publicly tested for HIV at his Saturday morning forum. I know this to be true, because I did the organizing for him. So to say that the Black Church and Black Pastors ain't doing nothing just is NOT true.

Take this Sunday for example, I spoke at Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Austin Texas, all three worship services. Now for a pastor to give his/her preaching time up on Sunday morning is major.

Pastor Gaylon Clark of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church did just that and I spoke to 3 jammed packed worship services, where I gave my testimony, uncut!! Pastor Gaylon got tested for HIV in the pulpit all three worship services to show how easy testing is for his congregation.

Now, what happened in Austin, just wasn't at Greater Mt. Zion. Pastor Gaylon organized his fellow clergy and 15 other churches also did testing for HIV and it was across denomination, from Baptist to Church of God. They tested 96 people across the city and 249 at Mt. Zion. They did a wonderful job with a total of 345 being tested at churches citywide.

Greater Mt. Zion was wonderful! The congregation accepted me with open arms and yes they sowed seeds into my ministry and supported me finically and good Lawd, they bought tons of my bracelets from RLT Collection! We were a blessing to each other.

Moving Forward: Yes, we still have some black ministers stuck somewhere between God's Grace and God's Theology and their understanding of it thereof, but white ministers are too especially Southern Baptists, where might I add, HIV is hit the hardest with new cases.

Now, I know I'm going to take some heat for what I'm about to say, but I'm used to heat, so anyhoo, I stand by what I say!

Can more Black Churches be involved, YES! So how do we do it? This is how..... Listen closely: Meet Pastors were they are at, not where you want them to be!!!!!

We have got to loosen this grip on the church when it comes to homosexuality. There isn't a person on the planet that can interrupt God's word for a Pastor. You have to let that be. How they see and understanding God's word is between them and God, just like who you have sex with is between you that person and God.

I can't tell you who to have or not have sex with and as a minister, yes I'm a minster for those who didn't know, you can't tell me how to interpret God's word. That's between me and God and how I see God shaping my ministry. I don't judge you, how dare you judge me?

Now, why do we need to loosen up? Let me tell you. Because Black women are contracting HIV heterosexually by 80%. Let me be clear, I love my Gay Brothers. This blog is NOT about homosexuality. You can read more about me and gay men HERE. Nor am I'm saying that the Black Church shouldn't deal with the issue of homosexuality, on the contrary it MUST!

What I'm saying is we have got to separate these issues. The White Gay community has co-opt HIV for its own, and we need to challenge that head on. This is a problem not just for how we approach the Black Church, but HIV generally speaking.

There is a fight to the finish on who gets the major money for HIV education across this country. Black CBO's are underfunded to the white, gay ran, more established groups. I know it's politically incorrect to talk about this topic, and most people don't for fear of being labeled, Gay bashing or anti-gay. Well, I'm going on record, I am NOT anti-Gay! But as long as black people are disproportionately impacted by HIV, I will not shut up about how we approach HIV/AIDS in the black community. The Gay community didn't do it in the 80's and 90's and they shouldn't ask us to do anything differently than how they approached HIV/AIDS for the gay community and turn things around. Just Sayin!!

I'm moving On. This is about how we approach Black Pastors around HIV/AIDS.

You can't have it both ways, on one level, the Gay community wants to challenge people... i.e. why you keep saying AIDS is a Gay disease? Then when they approach you about HIV/AIDS, their starting point is sexuality. When you approach this issue from the point of sexuality, you keep us locked into thinking how people contract HIV rather than all the issues surrounding HIV.

The starting point should be HIV/AIDS. First off people need, love, support and compassion whether they are gay or straight! And for the most part, any pastor will tell you that they care about their congregation. Secondly, HIV is a health issue that gets clouded by the issues of who's zooming who. If you plead the case for HIV, I believe more pastors will come on board.

What's the case? Here it is! Let's take testing. The earlier a person knows their HIV status, the longer they live. Most African-Americans discover their HIV status when they are already sick from AIDS and don't benefit from treatment and care like our white counter parts.

Might I add, the Gay White Community is on top of treatment and care for themselves? So why not talk to pastors about treatment and care for Black Folks? Why does the discussion always have to be about what that pastor believes about sexuality first, then HIV/AIDS secondly?

The fact of the matter, if a person knows their HIV status, they will less likely infect someone else. But as it stands today, 38% of all new cases of HIV are people infected by people who didn't know their HIV status. So just by testing alone we can reduce the numbers of HIV.

So why not make the case for testing. Take Salem Baptist Church in Chicago. It is no secret that Pastor Meeks, while his position on same sex relationships is not very supportive, but by the same token, he stood in his pulpit and got tested for HIV and has had testing at his 10,000 plus member church more than once. This Pastor is a clear example on support around HIV/AIDS even if he does not support issues around sexuality. I believe there are more Pastors out here just like this, but we don't give them the chance, black or white.

What's The Case? Now you are NOT gonna get all pastors to distribute condoms, but some will say use one, just like Pastor Gaylon and Pastor Jones have done in the past. They may say, "Until you can abstain, use a condom."

Even if a pastor won't talk about condoms and just talk about testing in a church, we will have some positive residuals.

First off, if you're testing in a church, it will make people think about their sexual behavior. Those 20 minutes waiting on your test results can be life changing for some people. I've been told, you rethink your life over and over and over again, waiting on those test results. Shoot testing in the church, just might get a few people to abstain. Just Sayin!

What's The Case? Have you ever considered talking to Pastors about the increase in cases among the senior community? There has been something like a 58% increase in new cases of the 65 and older community. I bet that would blow some pastors away, especially those with large senior populations. This is just one more example of how we can meet pastors on this issue of HIV/AIDS. Hope you get the point.

If we are truly concerned about HIV/AIDS in the Black Community, why not address the issue of HIV/AIDS with our pastors, instead of forcing a discussion about something he/she believes they are an authority on, rooted in God's Word?

Why not get your feet in the door and make your enemy your friend first? Let them see you as human first. Seeing you as human might lead to understanding the whole you. Why not agree to disagree on some issues? Why do Black Pastors have to believe what you believe in order to tackle HIV/AIDS in their church?

Yes, you can and should have that discussion about sexuality with Pastors, all I'm saying, is why does it has to be the starting point to discuss HIV/AIDS.

Why hold Black Pastors hostage on one issue when work can be done on other issues around HIV/AIDS? Why can't HIV/AIDS stand as a fluid issue with sexuality being one point, not the only and beginning point. Go ahead and cuss me out *shrugs* but there is a lot of truth in what I'm saying.

Now, I'm clear, that Black Gay men are also disproportionately impacted by HIV. But honestly, I don't see, the "majority" organizations out there working on this issue either, trying to understand the complexity of homosexuality in the Black community. I see a one track agenda that has been co-opt by the larger issue of HIV/AIDS. Enough is an Enough!

I tell people all the time when I get asked, "What is the Black Community Doing About HIV/AIDS?" I ask, What's the AIDS Community Doing About HIV/AIDS? They have the money and resources. To put the weight of this disease on the black community, when someone else controls the resources is not fair. Likewise, to only have one topic when you talk to a pastor is not fair. With this single approach you leave no room for anything else.

The Black Church is a complicated institution, the Black community is too. Nor are we a monolithic people,contrary to belief. Our views are complex. And while some Black Gay men feel isolated, there are many, who don't, who worship every Sunday in a Black Church. I wonder how they feel, black, gay and an active member of a Black Church having to justify that piece of Black culture they are not giving up.

I hope you get the point. We spend a whole lot of time bashing the Black Church and Black Pastors, rather than trying to find a way to work with them.

We have come a long way in 31 years and yes there is still much work to do. African-Americans are 54% of all HIV cases in the United States and we are around 12-13% of the population. Yes, there is work to be done. Work for the Black Church!!

But if we really and truly care about HIV/AIDS in the Black community, we have got to meet Black Pastors at the common place; That is, how can I enrich the lives of the people of God? Testing and treatment is a starting point that I believe many pastors will embrace if given the opportunity.

I just wanted to give you some food for thought.

As we move through this National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS,

Lets pray for a greater understanding of the work that needs to be done to change this tide in the Black community.

Let's pray that the CHURCH Black, White or otherwise will be a Balm in Gilead.

Let's pray for compassion, love and understanding for people with HIV/AIDS.

Let's pray for emotional and physical healing for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Let's pray for testing in numbers beyond anything we can image.

Let's pray for affordable health care and access to HIV medication, yes even in the United States there are people who do not have medication but need to be in treatment.

Finally, Let's pray for unity around the issue of HIV/AIDS as a way to reduce the numbers of new cases and turn this tide around for all of God's people.

Send Rae an email.

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See Also
TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More on African-American Churches and HIV/AIDS
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Laurie H (cow town in mountains) Thu., Mar. 22, 2012 at 10:29 pm EDT
A caucasian women, heterosexual oh yeah person living with HUMAN IMMUNE DEFICIENCY VIRUS. Many times want to share my experience strength & hope, but find put on the outside because I am a white girl. There has been so much division in HIV community, based on, "age, race, religion, sexuality, lack of religion" it makes me sad hmm and somewhat angry. When my friend a black woman, passed away back in 1996, my heart broke, she allowed are common positive HIV status to share our fears and hopes. She brought me to a support group, which was all black women (WOMEN of Color) support group. Never ran into a white heterosexual support group in 24 years. Even though I felt not excepted because of my skin color she showed me an understanding that was like no other. We didn't see color we saw support. Since, then I don't share as much as I would like to because I feel discriminated within the HIV community. That is so very crazy. As if I received a better type of HIV. I can't deny the numbers that are affected. Last year, in the rural community another white straight man died he was diagnosed 6 months before his death because physicians, looked at his outsides, his wife and two kids, denied the some signs of shingles, swollen lymph nodes and then died of BurKettes Lymphoma (AIDS defining cancer). Rural America needs to wake up and your pastors need to come to our churches here. The wife through the grace of GOD is not positive. She so wants to talk share her story about the importance of ALL being tested. Our prominent white cowboy republican closed minded christians, don't make it easy. So come west!! Go to middle America and see the lack of support of all races. I thank you so very much for writing this. I always love your energy and the ability to speak from the heart! I do have a guest room. I do pray daily for all people within the HIV/AIDS community to join in union and that not one of us has to experience living or dying isolated or alone. Bless US
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Comment by: Gloria (San Francisco, CA) Mon., Mar. 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm EDT
Love you Lady... Keep up the good work.. GOD IS AWESOME!!! Let's pray for a cure!!!
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Comment by: janice s. Thu., Mar. 8, 2012 at 6:23 pm EST
You are awesome,
From a white, heterosexual woman
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Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton is an Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist who rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has lived with HIV for 27 years and AIDS for 19. Rae travels the country speaking and challenging stereotypes and myths about HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Church History. Rae has been featured on Nightline, Dateline NBC, BET and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless magazines and newspapers, including Emerge, Glamour, O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Jet, Ebony, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few. She earned the coveted Emmy Award for a first-person series on living With AIDS for Chicago's CBS News.

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