MAXWELL: Black churches must address HIV/AIDS
2/11/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I had planned to write about a nonblack subject. When, however, I saw yet another TV news report about how HIV/AIDS is decimating the black population and how the black church refuses to get involved, writing about this issue was a no-brainer for me.
One of my relatives died of AIDS in 1999.
The report featured a black pastor, a woman, bravely challenging her peers to drop the code of silence and to start assuming responsibility for helping to eliminate an epidemic that may be the greatest threat ever to the survival of black people as a viable group.
Of the more than 85,000 black churches in the United States, only a handful, primarily in major cities, are actively involved in this important work. The others have descended into denial, ignorance and homophobia, and they focus on the so-called Great Beyond.
Although the infection rates for blacks are dropping nationwide, the statistics remain grim: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while blacks are roughly 13 percent of the nation’s population, they account for 54 percent of new AIDS cases. Black women between 25 and 44 are more likely to die of AIDS than any other illness.
The church has to do more to help reverse this cycle of illness and death. I single out the church because as Julia Walker, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Balm in Gilead, told me years ago, “The church is where the structure is in the African-American community. A drug user may not set foot in a church, but his mother probably does.”
In March 2005, when I was working in Alabama, I had the displeasure of meeting the Rev. Michael Jordan, pastor of the New Era Baptist Church in Birmingham. The church is in the heart of the mostly low-income black community.
The good reverend came to my attention because he had a large sign in front of the church that read: “AIDS is God’s curse on a homosexual life.”
This is what Jordan said of the sign: “It was a revelation from God about the situation that’s going on. I get my orders from God. It’s divine revelation, and the purpose of the sign is not to judge but to save at least one homosexual.”
A few days later, after a stream of reporters knocked on his door and kept his telephone ringing, Jordan removed the sign. He acted correctly this time, AIDS workers told me, because instead of saving gay people in the community, even one, the sign further stigmatized them and drove them deeper into secrecy.
On another level, the sign typified the black church’s homophobia and its insensitivity toward people with AIDS, and it symbolized the church’s failure to act responsibly.
Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of HIV/AIDS experts and prevention advocates on the topic of how the black church can help. Some of the best answers I have heard are those of Mona Ochoa-Horshok, executive director of West Alabama AIDS Outreach in Tuscaloosa.
She spends much of her time trying to elicit the help of the black church because she believes that the church is central to black culture. In that light, the church can change itself on three important fronts as a means to make a positive, long-lasting difference in the AIDS crisis.
“Black churches could talk about sexuality from the pulpit as a normal part of being a human being,” she said. “Our humanity is tied very closely to our sexuality. It’s at the very core of what we are. And it needs to not be a taboo subject. From there, homosexuality is a part of sexuality, and it is a reality for a segment of our population. Next, the church can help us talk about raising our children with proper attitudes toward sexuality. … You need to give kids all the information you can so that they will have the tools to make good decisions. Third, the churches could advocate for increased funding … to support AIDS organizations. I think that the churches have a pretty powerful voice.”
The urgency for the black church to get involved in the black HIV/AIDS crisis has never been greater. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.