February 1, 2011
With African Americans accounting for 64 percent of Philadelphia's HIV infections, clergy there have rallied in a citywide campaign to encourage people to get tested. In November, faith leaders from about 100 churches and mosques preached and disseminated information about HIV; 10 houses of worship offered on-site HIV testing.
"The church is supposed to be the heart of Christ, and if Christ were here, HIV would be on his agenda," says the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, the city's largest congregation. On the Sunday that Waller preached about the disease, Enon's HIV/AIDS ministry shared information, and approximately 130 people were tested.
Dr. Waller played an instrumental role in encouraging other faith leaders to talk about HIV, says the Rev. Marguerite E. Handy, executive director of the city of Philadelphia's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The initiative was coordinated by the Interfaith Health Action Alliance of Philadelphia, a newly created coalition of faith-based organizations that works to reduce health disparities.
"The campaign is still going on," says Handy. "I'm hoping that the awareness that we have begun to develop will help challenge those in faith communities and regular communities."
"Dr. Martin Luther King once said that in the 1940s, if you were a Christian living in Europe, you should have stood up and said 'I am a Jew' because of what Hitler was doing to the Jews," Dr. Waller says. "If you were a Christian in America in the '50s and the '60s, you should have stood up and said 'I am a Negro' because of the fight for civil rights.
"If you are a Christian today, you should stand up and say, 'I am HIV positive' because of the challenges that are facing people who are HIV positive and because of the work that is yet to be done," the pastor adds, "and talk about how the disease is transmitted and how we can protect people from it."
Enon member Monica Lewis-Wilborn agrees: "It's important that we speak out because AIDS is impacting African Americans at a rate higher than any other demographic. Sometimes you need to be given a little jolt. So you might not expect to hear about AIDS in church, but maybe this is the place for you to realize that this is a serious problem."
As a part of the campaign, five billboards featuring images of prominent Christian and Muslim faith leaders were posted in neighborhoods with high HIV rates. The billboards stated, "We have been tested for HIV, have you? Get tested for HIV."
The Rev. Leslie Mitchum, pastor of Calvary A.M.E. Church and health coordinator of the A.M.E. First District, believes that the initiative has helped to combat HIV-related stigma.
"The church is taking a lead in getting rid of that stigma so that we all get tested, get informed and move forward with life," she says. "It was very important for people to hear that HIV is not a death sentence and that new medications are being developed."
In addition to hearing Mitchum preach about HIV, Calvary A.M.E. congregants were also given detailed information about HIV during an educational workshop. "It was eye-opening, especially where the seniors were concerned," Mitchum says. "Those over 60 who are so trusting were surprised to hear that seniors were contracting it. The teens were very open to getting the information."
While some religious leaders feel at ease talking about HIV, some are reluctant to openly address the issue. Rafiyq Friend, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, was instrumental in getting five mosques to participate. Philadelphia has a large community of Black American Muslims.
Yet he acknowledges that challenges exist in getting Muslim leaders to address the issue: "Theologically, we believe in certain moral positions around adultery, fornication--mostly illicit sexual activity," he says.
"This distribution of the literature is where we've had the most success," he adds. "But to get them to really bring it to the congregation like the churches have done, we've not had that much success."
With an HIV/AIDS rate more than five times the national average, and an infection rate 50 percent higher than New York City's, Philadelphia's cooperative faith-based outreach provides a vital complement to health-department efforts. And in a city whose name is the title of the seminal movie about HIV/AIDS (in which a Black defense attorney represents a White HIV-positive defendant) and that calls itself the "City of Brotherly Love," perhaps it's a fitting irony that the catalyst for the collaboration was a White woman from out of town.
Shortly after relocating to Philadelphia, Brown University research professor Amy Nunn, Sc.D., approached Handy with a proposal to engage churches and mosques in HIV outreach and testing. Dr. Nunn thinks that she succeeded in eliciting a positive response from the city's Black clergy because she listened to their insights.
She hopes that in the future, more houses of worship actually offer testing on-site. The most recent tabulation showed that a total of 150 tests were administered at 10 locations. "People preached about it and people tested, but not all of our pastors combined both messages. We need to have more explicit, unified messaging" that includes both education and testing, Dr. Nunn says. "The pastor probably needs to say, 'Get tested, and if you test positive, we are still going to embrace you as members of our community and love you,' " she adds.
"For me, Dr. Martin Luther King's philosophical worldview informs our understanding on how we get tested," Dr. Waller says. "If all of us get tested, then there is no stigma in the room. We are covering our brothers and sisters in grace by submitting to tests without letting them be in the room by themselves."
Plans are under way to launch a second citywide preaching-and-testing initiative, reaching out to the city's smaller churches and targeting underserved areas.
Ayana Jones is a Philadelphia-based business and health reporter.