As infections rise among blacks, compassion replaces condemnatio
By Dahleen Glanton,
On a recent Sunday morning, the Rev. Stephen Thurston stood on the pulpit before a packed New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago while a health care worker swabbed his upper and lower gums. After his sermon, she announced the results: Thurston had tested negative for HIV.
It was an unusual scene in an African-American church, where for decades many black ministers and parishioners have stood silent as HIV and AIDS festered in the community. Consumed by fear, a lack of information and conflicting messages about religion, sex and homosexuality, some pastors condemned the disease in sermons as HIV/AIDS grew to epidemic proportions just outside their church doors.
But in recent years, with more access to information about the disease, increasing numbers of black churches are slowly becoming outspoken advocates for testing, increased government funding and education. For some, it has meant changing their views about religion and opening their doors to gays and lesbians, whom they once shunned.
“Our response has not been as compassionate and loving as it should be,” said Thurston, who also is president of the National Baptist Convention of America, which claims 1.5 million members nationwide. “We are single-minded in saving the souls of individuals, but not as opened-minded in terms of saving that person’s life.”
While a handful of churches, such as Trinity United Church of Christ, have long had HIV/AIDS outreach ministries, others are just beginning to introduce the subject to parishioners. Some ministers pepper their sermons with calls for tolerance. Some invite HIV-positive speakers to address misconceptions and put a human face on the disease.
Some have taken it further. At Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago, HIV testing was integrated into a recent women’s day program. At Faith United Methodist Church in Dolton, a display of brochures about homophobia, HIV testing and the risks of Christians contracting HIV is placed near the entrance of the welcome center.
And pastors are taking HIV tests in an effort erase the stigma and encourage churchgoers to be tested. After Thurston’s test, 41 people lined up after church to be tested, according to the health worker, who also is a member of New Covenant’s health awareness committee.
There is an effort under way, pastors said, to change the culture of black churches — one of the most powerful voices in the African-American community — to view HIV/AIDS like other health issues that disproportionately affect blacks, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. But it has not been an easy transition.
“African-Americans are very conservative people, particularly in talking about sex,” said the Rev. Charles Straight, the pastor of Faith Church, which is hosting an HIV/AIDS forum for ministers on June 25. “Many of our churches believe it is a sin to be gay, and we can’t get to anything else until we fix what’s wrong with you. Preachers have to look at today’s environment and today’s culture and say, ‘How do we apply the biblical principle and have an open mind?’”
Several Chicago ministers, including Thurston, are part of a national coalition of about 50 preachers from around the country promoting legislation in Congress that would provide grants to public health agencies and faith-based organizations for testing and prevention, and develop programs specifically targeting black women, youth and gay men. The bill, known as the National Black Clergy for the Elimination of HIV/AIDS Act of 2009, also calls on President Barack Obama to declare HIV/AIDS an epidemic in the black community, which would bring additional federal dollars to help curb the growing numbers.
Following a national trend, HIV/AIDS has soared among African-Americans in Chicago. Blacks represent 36 percent of the city’s population yet account for 55 percent of recently diagnosed HIV infections, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. Blacks also represent 54 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in Chicago, statistics show.
“There is no question it is most pervasive in the African-American community. These are some of the most damaging statistics before us, and we need to get a handle on it,” said Dr. Horace Smith, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital and pastor of Apostolic Faith Church in Chicago. “The black community has to stop being in denial and be mature enough to say, ‘This is what it is, but we can change it to what it ought to be.’ An alarm needs to be sounded.”