MAXWELL:  Called to join the fight against AIDS

3/7/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The black church, which is central to African-American life and historically a house of refuge, has turned its back on one of the groups in greatest need _ people with AIDS. Instead of preaching sermons of understanding and compassion and offering assistance, too many black pastors merely rail and condemn.

Simply stated, the black pulpit has abnegated its responsibilities in dealing with AIDS.

“The church is where the structure is in the African-American community,” said Julia Walker, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Balm in Gilead Inc., an AIDS information organization. “An AIDS victim may not set foot in a church, but his mother probably does.”

Listen to others speak of the black church and its hard line toward AIDS:

+ Michael Howard of the Tampa AIDS Network: “A lot of churches have the “don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude. 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.”

+ An AIDS Partnership spokesperson: “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. 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.”

Walker and other AIDS workers want the church to become AIDS information and education centers. “That process can’t get rolling until preachers jump on board,” she said. “Right now many people in these churches can’t have a conversation about AIDS because they’re busy associating it with homosexuality.”

For the last 10 years, however, the Balm in Gilead has been trying to bring the black church into the fight against the spread of AIDS among African-Americans. A major program in the organization’s effort is the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which begins today. The national program is modeled after the successful Harlem Week of Prayer that Pernessa C. Seele established in 1989 to educate and mobilize Harlem’s religious community.

In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded a pilot study of the Black Church Week of Prayer in six cities. Today, this national program has enlisted 10,000 churches throughout the nation. Organizers say that the weeklong event is effective because blacks believe that prayer, education and social action go hand in hand. Because the church continues to be the cornerstone of African-American life, it serves as the headquarters for disseminating information on issues of health, politics and social change.

“Given the church’s central role in the lives of most African-Americans, it is essential that religious organizations lead the struggle to stop the seemingly uncontrollable spread of the disease and to deliver and demand more services and resources for people and families infected or affected,” Seele said.

Following are some of the activities that churches can conduct during the week of prayer: Leaders can incorporate messages about HIV/AIDS prevention and compassion throughout the week; the pastor can deliver a sermon on HIV/AIDS and the role of the church; leaders can distribute HIV/AIDS education materials to the congregation and hold a seminar during a special service such as Sunday school or a youth forum.

Any black person who dismisses the efforts of the Balm in Gilead needs to consider a sampling of the AIDS statistics:

Although blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for nearly 50 percent of AIDS cases. By 2005, that figure is expected to rise to 60 percent.

Today, 300,000 to 500,000 blacks are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Most are young, and 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.

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

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

Given this grim portrait, the Balm in Gilead should be commended for encouraging blacks and their congregations to participate in the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. The problem is that too few African-Americans are heeding the Balm in Gilead’s life-saving message.