Can I Get an "Amen" for HIV Awareness?

Can I Get an 'Amen' for HIV Awareness?

It still amazes me that even though the HIV epidemic has been in existence for 30 years, there are some people that still don't know how it's transmitted. The rate of infection in my community is alarming. Most importantly, our youth are at risk. So I've worked as a peer educator for six years with the Women's Institute at GM HC. My reason for becoming a peer was my personal passion to raise awareness of HIV in my community and among our youth.

Throughout my life, I have attended many Baptist churches -- even though I was raised Catholic -- because a lot of my family are Baptist. I visited my aunt's church where my cousins sang in the choir. I didn't feel comfortable there at first. Being a lesbian, I was used to wearing pants, but my aunt told me "Oh no! You can't wear pants to church -- you have to wear a dress!" That made me very uncomfortable. When I actually thought about how God loves people, it wasn't about how I dressed -- it was best to come as I am. When I grasped that concept I didn't feel bad about the preconceived notions of other church members, and I stopped hiding my sexuality. But it took a few years.

There's a stigma about gays and lesbians in the church. It's like trying to jump two hurdles, the gay hurdle and the HIV hurdle. And a lot of people think it's the same thing. But that's not the case with HIV. It affects everybody. The stigma associated with the origin of this epidemic is alive today -- it's still a "gay" disease. And being gay in the Baptist church is considered taboo. I once heard a church member say, "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." So, there's a tremendous amount of shame and guilt associated with being HIV positive. If a person who was positive wanted to turn to the church as a source of refuge, chances are they'd be ostracized. Which means they'd suffer in silence. When folks become silent, they feel alone and die alone.

There's an urgent need to break the silence surrounding HIV in the Baptist church. The attraction of the Baptist church is that the message there is spoken directly to the members. It's a personal message to the people -- the pastors speak to real-life issues. That's why I relate more closely to the Baptist church than the Catholic church. The pastors of my aunt's church were the leaders of their congregation and of the community. That seemed like an excellent way to reach massive amounts of people who might otherwise be closed-minded to the idea of HIV education.

So, some years ago, I came up with the idea of reaching out to faith-based organizations. It was time for pastors to assist in raising awareness among the congregation, community, and families. Right now, there is not much dialogue in churches about HIV. Starting the conversation in the congregation would create discussions in families that would trickle down to friends and the community, especially our youth. You know, when I speak to young people about HIV, they're very eager to learn but tell me that it's just not something their peers talk about. Raising their awareness through education, we can emphasize the importance of knowing how HIV is transmitted, of using protection, and knowing your status. It's always better to know than not to know.

Some of the statistics that I present about HIV and African-Americans shock people. As I am reading them I hear gasps and see some very astonished faces. It's obvious that a lot of them are unaware of the severity of the epidemic. But I think people are more eager now to learn about HIV because it's affecting people around them. It's not just the gays anymore. If people can be open-minded about sexuality and HIV education then we'll do better. We can get more done.

I've reached out to a few churches about starting a campaign that teaches about HIV prevention and encourages testing. Some don't call back but I keep calling them until I speak with someone. Others have HIV ministries, but a lot of them aren't really active. And there are some church members who are very helpful -- my aunt, for example. She helped me with the first campaign I worked on: "The First Ladies Care Campaign." It was designed to get pastors' wives to encourage their congregations to support HIV education, prevention, and testing. It was my idea to choose The First Baptist Church of Crown Heights as our first effort, because my aunt had been a very active member there for over 30 years. She was instrumental in making the connection with the church's HIV ministry. After that, the idea was presented to the First Lady, Mrs. Ellen Norman, who was excited and became our campaign's first "spokesmodel." Her photo was taken and put on a church fan with a quote on the back: "HIV and AIDS has touched all of our lives. The time for us to reach out is now."

My aunt passed away two months before the fans were presented to the congregation. Although she never spoke much about HIV, she knew the work I was doing to educate people and save lives was important. I'm forever grateful to her for assisting me in successfully starting the campaign at her church. I believe the campaign was well-received and a seed was planted to make people think. Moving forward, the next step should be a health fair where we can host a question-and-answer session, pass out HIV and ST I information, create dialogue, and have a testing van present.

Once we're able to educate and have a healthy dialogue with our churches, family, and community, we can begin to protect each other and end the rising infection rate. Can I get an "Amen!"?