Everywhere you look in New Orleans, the face of God follows. Our football team is composed of Saints. A classic image of our city is St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square with its three black spires pointed toward the heavens despite that its foundation is below sea level. There are streets named for Christian martyrs, as well as Piety Street, Annunciation Street, and the most straightforward of all, Religious Street. Although many faiths are practiced freely in New Orleans, including Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and even Santeria, the Christian influence on the city is perhaps the oldest and most pronounced in its landscape.
Because religion plays a large role in life in for many people in New Orleans, Team NOLA wanted to create a project that engaged communities of faith. For our Long-Term Project (LTP), Team NOLA developed an HIV/AIDS and STI education session designed for the faith-based community, specifically the Christian faith.
We wanted to reach out to the religious community for three main reasons. First, churches in New Orleans play a huge role in uniting community members, providing service and aid to those in need, and can sway a large number of people. Second, stigma and miseducation about HIV/AIDS are often perpetuated from adults to the youth; if we reach the adults, they can take what they have learned to their families. Lastly, we wanted to promote understanding between the religious and public health communities, decreasing stigma on both ends, and uniting our knowledge and experience for a stronger, healthier community.
Our LTP would not have been a success without collaboration with the religious community. We recruited the help of some key individuals who work in HIV/AIDS and are active at their churches. We held a focus group with the stakeholders about effective ways to collaborate with the local faith community. The focus groups helped inform the content in our presentation.
We then partnered with Nadrine Hayden, project director for Connect 2 Protect NOLA chapter and First Lady of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. She invited us to present before a women's group she leads at her church. We made sure no detail was overlooked, providing refreshments and goodies such as fans printed with HIV awareness messages (it's hot down here, in case you didn't know), lip gloss, water bottles and more, thanks to Randi Sylve, who allowed us access to the treasure trove of promotion materials available at the Office of Public Health.
We delivered our prevention messages to women and youth from the congregation. A discussion at the end provided time for people to learn even more about sexual health when older audience members shared their experiences with sexual health, HIV/AIDS, and stigma. This opened up intergenerational dialogue with younger audience members about how stigma is perpetuated and how education can help stop it. It was an intimate conversation, full of laughter and warmth. We can't thank them enough for welcoming us.
Collaborating with the religious community is important because it's a resource for so many people, including those affected by HIV. Some individuals may believe that public health and religion are simply too different, with differing agendas and goals, to work together. However, we believe that each share common goals of making communities safer, healthier, and happier. The public health and the faith-based communities do not have to be separate entities, and in fact we have a lot to learn from one another as we tackle HIV/AIDS together.