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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson


This is part of a ten-part article. For the next section, click here. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

5. The Church: Work in Progress

"The black church is no more awful [on AIDS issues] than other churches," journalist Kai Wright says. "The Catholic Church is probably far worse in terms of its global impact on slowing down progress. But the black church is uniquely important in the black community, particularly in the South, so that's why it's fair to talk about it."

When AIDS advocates talk about the black church, the word they increasingly use is "progress." This year, for example, Balm in Gilead expects a record number of participants worldwide in its Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which features sermons on compassion, HIV testing information and the launching of AIDS ministries.

While many churches remain rigid in their views on sex and sexuality, they do provide resources that can easily be adapted to care for people with HIV -- and they will do that exactly, if you meet them on their terms, says Carrie Broadus of Women Alive. "Our job is not to criticize [churches] for their belief -- no matter how we may feel about it. That will only block communication," she says. "Our job is to identify how, given what they believe, they still can help to stop the spread of HIV and provide compassion and caring services to those living with HIV/AIDS," through health fairs, community forums and linkage to HIV counseling and testing. Broadus adds, "It also helps to be able to speak the language of scripture, which many activists unfortunately cannot do. To be able to remind a minister [that the Bible says], 'How can you say you love God, whom you have never seen, and hate your neighbor, whom you see every day?'"

Rep. Barbara Lee
Rep. Barbara Lee
U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, emphasizes that working to increase communication about HIV is as important as fighting for federal funding -- and the church's bedrock position for the black middle class makes it a central forum. "We've got to encourage an open dialogue within the church, so that pastors can have an honest discussion with their congregations," she says.

Fortunately, there are clear signs that black churches are making an effort. In January 2006, the Black Church Summit sponsored by the National Black Justice Coalition drew more than 150 clergy members to Atlanta, Ga., to discuss homophobia and HIV. Led by Rev. Al Sharpton, who made headlines for a fiery speech that criticized the black church for "scapegoating" gays and "acting as the oppressor" to people with HIV, the meeting was widely viewed as the optimistic opening of an ongoing dialogue. Over 200 attended in 2007 and a third meeting is planned for April 24-26, 2008.

What you can do: If you're an activist, consider employing Carrie Broadus' strategy of meeting the church on its own terms: Learn to speak its language.

If you're a person with HIV and an active churchgoer, consider disclosing your status to your minister. You may find yourself not only accepted with open arms, but also encouraged to speak publicly to your fellow parishioners. Several HIVers in our Profiles in Courage section find deep meaning and do much good for others through their AIDS ministries.

If you're a person with HIV who has been rejected by, or feels alienated from, organized religion, consider giving it a second chance. You deserve equal access to spiritual care no less than you deserve equal access to medical care.

Check out Balm in Gilead for further information and resources on all these matters of faith.

This is part of a ten-part article. For the next section, click here. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

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