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How long have you been a pastor?
I've been a pastor for 13, going on 14, years.
How long have you been dealing with HIV in the work that you do?
Since I've been involved with the program, the Black Church Initiative; that's when I first really got introduced with teenage pregnancies, HIV, STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]. Through Bible studies, through sermons, I actually introduced the program to the congregation.
What's the program?
The program is the Black Church Initiative. It's dealing with a program called Keeping It Real. It has an eight-week curriculum that we take our young people through. After completion, we give them a graduation certificate and try to give them positive choices, life choices. Not only that, but Godly choice, because it is a faith-based program.
What was the catalyst that got you involved in doing this kind of work?
One of my now members was a consultant, or a coordinator, for the Black Church Initiative, which is part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She introduced the program to me. I have a heart for young people. I have three children, myself. So that was one of the catalysts that kind of got me involved in it.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the program, what the curriculum is like, and what kinds of things you do, and what you talk to the young people about?
Yes, as a matter of fact. The program is called Keeping It Real.
- Session 1: It deals with sex and sexuality, a spiritual gift from God.
- Session 2: "Family Affair" deals with the role of the family in understanding sex and sexuality, or ourselves as being sexual beings.
- Session 3 is connected with the spirit, healthy relationships.
- Session 4: "In Your Face" This deals with the impact that the media has on our young people. So we deal with that.
- Session 5: "Freedom To Choose": making decisions about your sexuality and who you are as a person. And then
- Session 6: "Not in My Church", is combating the sexual violence that actually happened in a church but no one is talking about it. So we have dialogue to help people talk about that.
- Session 7: "Doing the Right Thing", promotes justice. Tells people that it's not all right to look down on people, but it is right to love people.
- Then, lastly, the influence of the church, because the church has a big influence, particularly in the African-American community. Most young people of African descent come to the church. If you don't get it in school, or in the home, the church would be the last place that it needs to be introduced because church is like a safe haven. If it's coming through the church, then it ought to be all right.
Give me an example of what you talk about. Do you talk about abstinence? Do you talk about condoms? Do you talk about both? What kinds of things?
We talk about both. We actually, definitely, deal with abstinence. Of course, we know abstinence is the key, and it's God's way. But if Jesus was alive, of course, I can't say what he would do or wouldn't do. But we do know that people are having sex. If they are having sex, they need to know that there are consequences behind the things that they do.
So we definitely preach abstinence, but there's also a point of the message that we preach, that you have a right to choose -- but make sure you know the consequences of your choices.
You talked about sexuality being a gift from God. That's such an interesting idea. Can you tell me what that means?
Yes. In Genesis, the Bible states that God created man and woman in His image. And everything he created was good, and very good. So we're made in the image -- the actual [Latin] word, the imago Dei -- which, we're made just like God. So if God made it good, then He included sex as part of that.
Let me get this straight: You teach the young people to embrace their sexuality, but to make healthy choices, and also consider being abstinent, as well. So you teach kind of a panoply of ideas.
Exactly. Because it's one thing to give good advice -- we try to give Godly advice. Because good advice will say, you know, don't eat a lot. Godly advice would say, do everything in moderation. Or, don't be a ... I'm lost for words right now. Gluttony. You know.
Do you ever come up against churches that are teaching a different way, that aren't interested in teaching about sexuality, and aren't interested in talking about condom use and HIV? And how do you deal with that?
Of course. We have some pastors in the area where I'm from that basically won't deal with the program at all. Because God's way, the way that they see it, [is that] God promotes that we be fruitful and multiply. I do agree with that. But also, you have got to understand that God wants us to be healthy human beings and sometimes, it's not healthy to multiply.
Also, I try to relate to the pastors, no matter what denomination they are, and let them know that if you love your children, you want to give them positive choices about their bodies, and about what they do. Prevention is the key.
Abstinence, true enough; that's what we want to teach and preach. But we have got to be able to reach the young people where they are at. Many times, when I deal with the issues like that, I let them know. I say, "Well, you go to Wal-Mart, but you don't buy everything that's in Wal-Mart. You get the things that are good for you."
Just like with the program. Some things you may not like. Well, some of the things that you need to know, that your young people need to know about themselves as sexual human beings.
Shifting gears a bit: Do you think that there's a lot of homophobia in the faith community? Do you think that's had an impact on the HIV epidemic?
Quite naturally. Because the homophobia thing is, everything was taboo, basically, in the African-American home, or in the African-American church. If you were gay or lesbian, or whatever, you were just isolated. So don't bring it in church, although it's in the church. Don't tell. If don't nobody know, don't say anything about it.
Because of that, people think you have to be a homosexual to catch HIV or AIDS. So, many times, it causes such a wrath in the church because you have a lot of older members who, in the age that they grew up, they didn't hear about AIDS, or HIV. If you bring it up now, it causes a problem, with the congregants, with the pastor. I think that's the reason why there is a lot of homophobia in the church. Because people just don't understand.
Do you talk about homosexuality in your curriculum?
Yes, we do. In the curriculum, as I stated earlier, this comes up. Because we dialogue with the young people, and we talk about the freedom to choose, making decisions about your sexuality. That comes up -- Am I attracted to a male? Am I attracted to a female? That comes up. Because you have a lot of young people who are confused about who they are attracted to. Or what does the Bible say about this, or what does the Bible say about that.
In any curriculum, we have to be Bible savvy to let them understand that "there is a way that seemeth right unto the man, but the end thereof is death or destruction." So we try to break it down to them, and keep it real at the same time.
If you have a sexual preference, we have to let you know that God loves you, in spite of.
Do you tell them that it's OK to be gay?
I don't necessarily tell them that it's OK. What I tell them is that the choices you make have consequences and just be willing to accept the consequences that come along with the choice. Some people choose to overeat, but there are consequences. I'm not saying that it's OK to overeat. It's OK to eat, but it's not OK to overeat. But I can't make you overeat. I can't tell you to stop overeating. But there are consequences.
Why do you think that communities of faith can have a difficult time dealing with HIV prevention, and dealing with parishioners who are positive, in their care? What do you think the obstacles are?
Because of the phobia that's out about HIV. There's more and more information that's available for everybody now, so it's not as difficult as it was. Then, it also depends on the area you're in -- if you're from the South, from the East, from the West -- it just depends on the area. If you're in a rural area, you're dealing with people from a different educational background. You're dealing with things that people just don't want to talk about, because they are afraid if you talk about it, it will happen.
Well, you don't have to worry about [HIV] happening, because it has happened. So you have to talk about it. The fear is because a lot of people who don't know much about it don't want to hear about it. But they must hear about it, because it's happening, it's here. Unless we do something to prevent it, it will continue to be an epidemic. It will continue to be a problem. It will continue to be something that will destroy a family.
What has your congregation done, specifically, to deal with prevention? You talked about the curriculum. Do you also talk about sexual identity and HIV in your sermons at all?
Yes. I did a sermon on "God Has a Plan for Man." God does have a plan for man, for mankind. The plan is that we love ourself, and love our neighbor as ourself. No matter what your neighbor is, or who you think your neighbor is, you love your neighbor, regardless. Just because you have an alternative lifestyle does not give you the right to look down on me.
So as far as having an AIDS day, that's in the works now. It's coming up December 1, to make an actual, not only announcement in the church bulletin, but also do actually a sermon on AIDS, in itself, the epidemic and the problems that plague our world.
Can you provide some specific advice for communities of faith, for ways they can make a difference, in terms of HIV prevention and caring for parishioners who are positive?
Yes. Talk about it. Get information. Go to the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Get all the information you can. Invite someone who knows about the epidemic who is educated on it, to come in and talk to your congregation. If you're afraid to do it, get someone who is not. Hear other views. Hear other sides. Be open. Jesus met the woman at the well. She was a Samaritan. But everybody else, they disregarded her. They cast her aside. Jesus said, "I want to talk to you."
The leper: Jesus talked to the leper, touched the leper. We have to talk. We have to communicate. The wine imbibers. Jesus talked to the harlots. "Whosoever will, let him come." You have got to talk about it. At first start, we're talking about it. If you're not talking about it, you're not doing nothing about it.
The old cliché, "What you don't know won't hurt you?" What you don't know will hurt you. So you have to talk about it.
Why do you think that HIV has become so stigmatized?
Because of homosexuality -- everybody thinks it's a gay disease. If you say you have HIV or AIDS, they think automatically that you are gay or a homosexual. But it comes through blood transfusion. It comes through body fluids. Of course, it comes with having sexual encounters with a male of the same gender. There's really no large statistics with a female being with female, as far as passing the disease, unless the female has been with a male that's been with another male with the disease that's passed through -- vaginal, or definite contact with bodily fluids.
The reason why I think that it's such a stigmatization is because if you say that someone in the congregation is suffering from the virus that causes AIDS, then they automatically look at them different. They are treated like a leper. If you know anything about leprosy: You're basically put outside the town, put outside the city. You can't even come to church. So that's why nobody wants to talk about it.
What do you think are some ways that this stigma can be addressed and alleviated?
If Jesus were alive today, what do you think he would say about how people with HIV have been treated by communities of faith?
Let who is without sin cast the first stone.
Do you think many faith communities' opposition to condom use is contributing to the spread of HIV?
Yes, simply because they say you use a condom, you prevent the repopulation, or the reproduction, that Jesus, that the Bible speaks about, being fruitful and multiply. Well, the Bible does talk about being fruitful and multiplying, but also, the Bible talks about being in a healthy relationship; it talks about a man and a woman being in a marital relationship. So it's more than just sex. You need to know the consequences behind the decision you make.
So if you say we are bringing condoms in the church, you're telling our young people to go ahead and have sex, just cover it up. That's not what we're saying. We're saying that you're already having sex. Be preventive to keep from spreading not only HIV, but STDs -- anything that can not only infect, but affect a family.
Thank you very much, Rev. Myers.
You're more than welcome.
Interview by Erika Nelson
Click here to e-mail Rev. Jimmy Myers.