Monday, February 18, 2008

Black Churches to Address HIV with Week of Prayer

In a 1998 essay on his experiences as a CEO of Harlem’s largest AIDS service organization, Willis Green Jr. had the following to say with regard to black churches’ response to the AIDS crisis:

The church, Harlem’s source of pride and power, took on the same mentality as
those who were infected and in hiding. The stigma associated with AIDS and
homosexuality made church leaders hesitant to get involved and people with HIV
found themselves on a waiting list of problems to be addressed. The general
population’s changing attitude regarding AIDS showed increasing compassion toward people living with AIDS, but the black and Latino communities did not follow suit…Community mobilization is the greatest challenge for the community of Harlem, not only in terms of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment but also for such other issues as politics and economics. The church must serve as the leader in this mobilization process.

The “Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS,” which will run for the 19th time this year from March 2nd to March 8th, is meant to build this mobilization process. The event is sponsored by the Virginia based Balm in Gilead, a non-profit group that seeks to get black churches on board with the HIV advocacy message. It calls on churches to incorporate HIV/AIDS education into their religious teachings, to turn their churches into HIV testing centers, and to encourage parishioners to volunteer with AIDS service organizations.

While some black churches in New York have partnered with Balm in Gilead, many remain resistant, as HIV is associated with what they consider immoral sexual behavior. Winning over these hold-outs is a challenge. Groups like the Harlem based “Gay Men of African Descent” are currently attempting to coax reluctant churches into the fold.

It is interesting that the Balm in Gilead does not raise the issue of homosexuality. Is this a tactical move? Perhaps many black churches are not ready to be welcoming to homosexuals. Or would Balm in Gilead rather not address homosexuality because of their own religious mores?

Either way, this approach may be the right one from a public health stand point. According to Green, many black and Latino men who have sex with men do not self-identify as gay. Thus, prevention campaigns that have targeted a gay audience have gone over their heads.

At the same time, where does this leave the struggle for the acceptance of gays in mainstream black culture? How long will they stay on “the waiting list of problems to be addressed?”

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