Black Churches & HIV: Change Comes Slowly
The statistics tell the story: African Americans represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population, but account for nearly half of all new HIV infections. The infection rate is eight times that of whites, and double that of Latinos.
The irony is that homophobia, and fear and shunning those infected, are the major factor in the spread of HIV in the black community. So rather than stemming the tide of the epidemic, the black church has actually been aiding it -- if not doing even more than institutionalized racism to further it.
"African-American houses of worship have served as epicenters of their communities and as a loud voice on social justice issues, ranging from poverty to discrimination," the NAACP's Roslyn M. Brock and Shavon Arline-Bradley wrote recently in The Grio, an African American news website. "Churches have historically avoided discussion of the disease in order to skirt other taboo topics such as homosexuality and premarital sex."
Two years ago, the NAACP began a program called "The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative" to break the silence. A pastoral brief helped clerics develop sermons about the importance of acceptance and connect congregants to testing and treatment services. The program's ultimate goal is to reach 3,000 clerics in 30 cities whose congregants make up an estimated two-thirds of U.S. HIV infections.
The fact that the nation's most venerable civil rights organization is spearheading this movement has given it a seal of approval that has broken the barrier at the church door. Baltimore pastor Sheridan Todd Yeary believes that provides some reassurance for clerics hesitant to broach the subject with parishioners.
"The church must step forward and clarify it as a disease like any other disease," Rev. Claude Alexander Jr., of Charlotte, N.C., has said. Alexander was one of the first preachers of a major black congregation in the South to address HIV from the pulpit. North Carolina has been a pioneer in this work. Way back in 1992, Rev. Deborah Warren founded the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, which has worked with 100 congregations in both Carolinas.
Another Charlotte minister emphasized the delicate dance pastors feel they have to make between acceptance and core religious beliefs. "We do not encourage unfaithfulness, that we call adultery or fornication," Corey Bradley of the New Birth Church.
Sex, Sin & Retribution
That divide was reflected in a report released late last year by healthcare professionals from Brown University. They initiated a program in Philadelphia that helped local pastors, media and City Hall to get the word out from the pulpit about testing and prevention.
Pastors in Philadelphia told the researchers that many congregants were angered by sermons preaching tolerance. Messages about testing, treatment and social justice were better received than those that mentioned sexual behavior.
In a 2012 a PBS "Frontline" report, "HIV, Stigma and the Black Church," showed just how difficult it is to change the hearts and minds of pastors in the Deep South.
Birmingham, Ala., pastor Michael Jordan called AIDS "God’s curse on a homosexual life. I think it stinks in the nostrils of God. I do extend grace, mercy and forgiveness to the homosexual.
"OK, I don’t close the door on you. I don’t think it’s the sin of homosexuality. It’s the arrogant unrepentant spirit that offends God," Jordan added, citing the passage from the Old Testament Book of Leviticus that says "a man lying down with a man as with a woman is an abomination."
"It interrupts God’s creation," Jordan said. "Sometimes you just can’t preach that God is good. God is a god of judging."
One of the pastors affected by the NAACP’s outreach program is Pastor Timothy Sloan of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in a Houston suburb. When he was persuaded to preach his first sermon about HIV, he admitted to the NAACP that he felt "ill-equipped" because he knew so little about the subject.
After being brought up to speed about the alarming statistics in the black community, however, Sloan "realized that I couldn’t ignore it any longer." Using Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Sloan preached about people being marginalized. Sloan had misgivings about how his sermon would be received, but the congregation gave him a standing ovation at three different services. Since then, Sloan has himself become a trainer of other pastors in the Houston area. More than 30 clerics have taken part.
Interestingly, Sloan admits that this might be a case of many congregants, who had been touched in their lives by HIV, being ahead of their cleric on a crucial subject. "Sex is a reality, and we’ve got to talk about that," he said.
One minister, Rev. Stephen Thurston of Chicago’s New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, has even taken an HIV test in front of his entire congregation. So did Rev. Raphael Warnock at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, famed as the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr.
"I see many churches say they want to help reach ’these people,’ but when they really get into the trenches, they still get hung up by the whole ’gay’ ideology, that the virus is a ’gay’ epidemic," Los Angeles activist Terry Angel Mason, told EDGE back in 2010. "But the reason we are facing this epidemic today is because we refused to believe we had gay folks in the church in the first place. There are thousands of us."
An Uphill Battle Against Ingrained Prejudice
"What is it with the African American church not wanting to deal with life as it is?" Mason asked. "They have refused to embrace advocacy. It has killed us, and it is killing us."
The depth of ignorance and denial is highlighted by a story Rev. Stacey Latimer told of a pastor at a Baptist church in the South who had been living on the down low when he contracted HIV. Instead of seeking medical help, the church elders prayed for him for eight years until changes in his health became too obvious.
What happened next is mind-boggling. The pastor was encouraged to marry a female congregant. He infected his wife, who was carrying his child. The baby died in a miscarriage -- as did the pastor, eventually.
When the son of a Jehovah’s Witness pastor in South Carolina contracted HIV, he was forced to live in a mobile home without electricity or running water. By the time he came to Latimer, the founder of Love Alive International, a faith-based service organization for HIV-positive African Americans, it was too late to save the unhappy man. He died not only from the unsanitary conditions, but also the stress of being rejected by his family.
"When I reached out to the church, I felt like I had been condemned because of my lifestyle," Alabamian Demarsh Tarver told CBS News. His minister’s idea of pastoral counseling after Tarve told him he had AIDS was to pray for forgiveness. Tarver told him "in so many words to go to hell."
How deeply entrenched HIV stigma remains in the black community was dramatically demonstrated by Tyler Perry’s 2013 film "Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor." Although the film was financially successful, critics slammed the plot, which depicts a young woman who cheats on her husband and lives in the fast lane.
She ends up sickened by HIV. Her husband abandons her. In a postscript, the audience sees her ex with a happy, healthy family. In an open letter, Positive Women’s Network protested Perry’s film. Looking at the comments on various websites, however, Perry’s core audience appears to embrace his moralizing message that HIV is akin to divine judgment on women who step out of their marriage.
A 2010 survey of black parishioners in South Carolina dramatically showed how much work remains to be done. Nearly a third believed that "Most people with AIDS have only themselves to blame"; a quarter believed "It’s God’s punishment"; and nearly 20 percent that "Homosexuals deserve to get AIDS."