March 8, 2002
The tiny effort involving 10 churches is the first of its kind in New Orleans but is part of a larger national effort in which an estimated 10,000 black churches are praying and talking about AIDS.
In the metro area, African-Americans account for 60 percent of people living with AIDS or HIV and the trend is accelerating. Black men and women make up about 71 percent of the area's new HIV and AIDS diagnoses, according to the state Office of Public Health.
"AIDS is still a disease with a powerful stigma attached to it," said Rev. Martin Odom of St. James AME church, a participant in the week of prayer. "If you get cancer, no one says, 'Shame on you.' Unfortunately, we're not there yet with AIDS. I expect there may be some in my congregation suffering in silence, or with family members suffering in silence."
Yet, with few exceptions, in black churches "this is such a not-talked-about-subject, they're not going to educate anybody," said Michael Hickerson, a social worker who leads Brother 2 Brother, a support group for black men infected with HIV. Hickerson said he hears stories of a few infected black men who still attend church guarding their secret. "With this epidemic, you don't have black folks rallying for other black folks with compassion, willing to care," Hickerson said.
The church activities in New Orleans are part of a national movement called Balm in Gilead, a 13-year-old drive founded in Harlem to get black churches into the forefront of caring for AIDS patients and disseminating information that might slow the epidemic. The name comes from Jeremiah 8:22, in which the people of Gilead cry out for relief.
A local nonprofit group called Brotherhood Inc. organized the drive, with a major push from Dr. Anthony Mitchell, a physician who doubles as pastor of First Free Mission Baptist Church in New Orleans. Rev. Odom and other local pastors say their churches' response to the AIDS epidemic has been greater than their critics give them credit for, because only insiders see it.
Churches in New Orleans have joined the effort but don't necessarily agree on the details. Rev. Cleveland Washington of Fairview Missionary Baptist Church agreed to join the effort but insisted that AIDS-related literature be stripped of material advocating the use of condoms.
Protestant pastors try to bring a balance between preaching and practice, "between the world as it should be, and the world as it is," said the Rev. Dwight Webster, Christian Unity's pastor. "Are we going to have a basket of condoms by the door?" he asked. "Probably not. But there is still a place for teaching about condoms," he said.