I was christened at a Missionary Baptist Church before I was even a year old, in La Marque, Texas: a small town about 30 miles south of Houston. At the age of 7, I decided to give my life to Christ by taking the invitation to discipleship and getting baptized. Now, at 32, I understand why at an early age I wanted to be connected to something bigger than me. The church gave me hope that there was an afterlife that would ensure that the life I was born into had some promise.
The church sat on my street’s corner. My childhood home faced the parking lot of the church, and, from it, you could see that the church served those with drug addictions and issues of alcohol abuse and people with criminal backgrounds. I was right in the midst of it: My mother ran the church’s clothing center, my grandpa was a trustee, and my grandma was a soloist in the choir. Our working-class family gave all we had. Most churchgoers were like my family: public school teachers, ministers, or doing work to help generations after them.
The street that connected the church saw so much tragedy. Drug addicts and dealers—including my older brothers—were sprinkled throughout. Very regularly, we witnessed murders and shootouts right in front of my home. The church stood tall: welcoming released prisoners, providing resources to people struggling with drug addiction, and advocating for rape victims. It was the cornerstone of the community.
Through the church, I learned what activism was. From fundraisers for men in our town slain by community members and police to marches for equal rights, the church gave me my first definition of social justice: the advocacy on behalf of those disenfranchised by the social structure and pressures of society. I will never forget how the church assembled around my family when my brother was shot nine times in our neighborhood in a drug deal gone bad. They went to the news outlets and brought our family food while my mom was at the hospital praying for him to recover.
This was what the church did, and it was no surprise to me as I learned activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson were Baptist ministers; the same people on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. Many other Christian churches and denominations took strong progressive stances in favor of social justice movements.
That is, except for sexuality and HIV.
None of this was important until I was aware enough to know that I was queer. Then, I realized how little I had ever heard the church speak about sexuality in a good context. Though I’ve never agreed, I understood that cisgender, heterosexual Christians sometimes feel homosexuality is abhorrent, abominable, and against God’s order. Honestly, there are even some LGBTQIA+ folx* that identify with those same thoughts. For me, that wasn’t enough to ignore the racial and social implications that would predisposition people such as myself to acquire HIV. Was religiosity and lack of acceptance of sexuality the reason the church couldn’t tackle HIV?
Probably. This moral fight against sexuality has been ongoing for centuries. Still, I hope we come to understand HIV is a social and racial justice issue—much more than sex or sexuality. This is not different from civil rights; HIV is impacting the most marginalized, oppressed communities. Specifically, HIV disproportionately affects Black and Brown bodies, the same people who need movements for civil rights.
In Houston, Texas, Black women are 17.2 times more likely to contract HIV than white women. Black men are 4.3 times more likely than white men to become HIV positive. We know that this is a disease that is affecting us on racial lines. All the while, there is only one place that attracts 83% of Black people in this country at least twice a year: the church. There are progressive Black churches that are leading the fight against HIV in innovative and life-changing ways, but that is not the norm. From my lens, the idolization of pastors can sometime keep congregants from having honest conversations about issues that impact us, such as HIV. Many people would rather sit quietly so as to not offend the leaders and the congregants, even if they don’t agree with the dialogue. I have sat with many people who will shout, “Amen,” instead of speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, this silence is violent oppression to those who most need the information, in a space where they would be comfortable receiving it.
This conversation in the Black church about black bodies needs to expand outside police brutality, sexual violence, and being pro-choice to include more conversations around HIV. Though it can be a taboo topic, it is necessary to begin this comprehensive conversation about sex in the church. I can admit it’s not easy to begin this conversation, but it can save lives. We desire in this work for messaging like undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), treatment as (is) prevention, and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to permeate through communities. We search for partners to reach more people with the messages and spend large sums of money to do it. Then, we watch some of the most powerful and wealthy nonprofits in these communities—the Black church—stay quiet while our (their) communities die spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically without this lifesaving information.
The Black church has a responsibility to end the HIV epidemic. I can’t fight your beliefs, but I can speak to your humanity; I can speak to your Christ-walk.
The Black church represents a history of being the heart of our community and a leading force of progressive change over the past two centuries. The progressive movements the Black church has sparked are some of the most liberating work from any organization; that is what we need from them concerning HIV. Politicians have signed agreements, community leaders and gatekeepers have started grassroots campaigns, celebrities have joined boards of leading nonprofits, and yet, we are still waiting on the church. We need the church as much as or more than we need other entities to join the fight.
The church: the first place that Blacks had full autonomy over. The church: the meeting place on our way to freedom. The church: the fundraising committee for the civil rights movement. The church: the place where misogyny abode but women’s rights were propelled.
I hope the church will one day join forces all over the country to combat the injustice of HIV. I believe that there is a rich historical strength that the church embodies, and it is one that our movement can’t be complete without. Exactly like our journey to freedom from oppression in other arenas, we need the Black church’s—our heart—involvement as we take action as a unit together to end HIV.