MAXWELL:  Churches can lead fight against AIDS

12/2/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Tuesday was World AIDS Day. It was not a celebration _ at least not one of life. As it should have been, it was a mass memorial, especially in most of the nation’s black communities. Let us start with some of the oft-repeated estimates and statistics:

+ Although African-Americans represent only 12 percent of the United States population, they account for more than 40 percent of current AIDS cases.

+ Today, 300,000 to 500,000 blacks are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Most are young. Many live in poor neighborhoods.

+ AIDS kills twice as many black males age 25 to 44 as does homicide. AIDS has become the leading cause of death for blacks under age 55, even before cancer and heart disease.

+ African-American women constitute two-thirds of all cases of women with HIV reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

+ More black children are infected with HIV than children of all other races and ethnicities combined.

+ By 2000, an African-American woman will be nearly 20 times more likely to have AIDS than non-black American women.

Given this grim portrait, all segments of black society should have mobilized years ago to fight this killer. Slowing the spread of AIDS should be the next civil rights movement. Instead, even as AIDS decimates our ranks, blacks in general are in denial about the race-relevance of the disease or are turning their backs on its victims.

The result of such apathy is a self-destructive, institutionalized silence. In a recent article for the Civil Rights Journal, Bernice Powell Jackson, executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, wrote: “We need the silence to end in our fraternities and sororities and on our college campuses. We need the silence to end in our high schools and in our Sunday schools. We need the silence to end in Laundromats and beauty parlors. We need the silence to end in our homes.”

Of special concern, however, is the silence from the pulpit. Indeed, the black church has abnegated its responsibilities in dealing with AIDS. Why the focus on the church?

“The church is where the structure is in the African-American community,” Julia Walker, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Balm in Gilead, an AIDS information organization, told the Tampa Tribune in October. “A drug user may not set foot in a church, but his mother probably does.”

Walker and other AIDS workers, such as Mary Stephan of the AIDS Partnership in St. Petersburg, believe that black churches _ by disseminating information about services, lifestyle changes and treatment _ can become centers for prevention.

“The process can’t get rolling until preachers jump on board,” Walker told the Tribune. “Right now many people in these churches can’t have a conversation about AIDS because they’re so busy associating it with homosexuality.”

Other activists, such as Michael Howard of the Tampa AIDS Network, are equally disappointed with the black church. “A lot of churches have the “don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude,” he said. “These pastors have a great responsibility. They have an obligation not only to the spiritual needs of their congregations, but to the physical needs, too.”

Stephan, whose son died of AIDS, wants black churches in the Tampa Bay area to become actively involved in AIDS prevention. She wants pastors to create environments where churchgoers can freely talk about AIDS. Pastors could, for example, preach about the disease compassionately rather than contemptuously.

Stephan wants churches to become AIDS education centers. After all, they have captive audiences. Churchgoers need to know that AIDS is a disease that can be prevented through education, understanding and caring.

“Pews are filled with people whose lives have been touched by AIDS, who sit silently fearing to share their pain because AIDS is “not spoken’ there,” an AIDS Partnership brochure states. “And others are absent from the pews because they feel they can no longer worship with people who ignore their hurt, or, worse, condemn those who are suffering.”

The urgency for the church involvement of the black church has never been greater, Stephan said. By 2005, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 percent of all AIDS cases in the U.S. will be among African-Americans. Many of those casualties will occur here in Tampa Bay. The black church, the most powerful institution in black culture, must come out of denial and lead the way toward prevention.