Before HIV and AIDS can be dealt with, something first has to be done about what one religious leader and advocate calls “CIV.”
CIV stands for “Christian Ignorance Virus,” and the term comes from Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
Rodney Johnson, co-chair of that church’s HIV/AIDS Support Ministry, said he adopted the phrase after he heard Moss say it one Sunday.
“I was giving a talk at the church and Pastor Moss got up after me to speak,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Rodney, I talked to CDC today and they have another disease out there more prevalent that HIV today…’”
Confused as to what his pastor was talking about, Johnson waited patiently to see what Moss’ next words would be.
“He said, ‘CIV – Christian ignorance virus. That is what a lot of churches have to deal with. Once we get rid of that, then they can deal with HIV.’”
Johnson has been the chair of Trinity UCC’s ministry for the past four or five years. He is also involved in the UCC’s national HIV/AIDS initiative
The ministry’s creation was a reactionary one, he said.
“Dr. Jeremiah Wright started the ministry in 1993 as a response to the treatment of the son of one of our deacons,” Johnson said. “The young man has been diagnosed and was being treated rather awfully.”
What started as a support group for its members, with an initial ministry membership of less than 100, quickly grew. They turned their focus on the community, going out to educate and support any and everyone. Soon they started working with Provident Hospital and also started holding an annual Youth Summit.
“We wanted to do more than just talk about the problem from the pulpit; we wanted to lead by example,” Johnson said. “Just last month Pastor Moss talked to be about getting test at least four times a year from the pulpit and getting the community involved.”
Trinity UCC is not the only church doing this work. Many churches are stepping up and have turned their attention to the HIV epidemic in the black community.
Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia is one.
Recently, during his pastoral observation, Dr. Alyn Waller, Enon’s pastor, expressed the importance of support in numbers.
“The point of bringing this before the congregation on Sunday morning is, if we claim that something is important to the black church it will show up on Sunday morning. If it does not have some place in the Sunday morning worship, then it really is not important,” Waller said.
Waller said that in his observation, people are afraid to get tested because of the stigma HIV and AIDS carry. People do not want to get tested simply because they think they are going to be judged.
“But, if we test in big numbers then you won’t have to worry about the stigma, if people will see you and how they will treat you,” he told his members.
Two days prior, Waller served as a panelist on “HIV/AIDS: 30 Years Later” as part of the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. He felt it was necessary to be a part of the panel because the church had gotten a black eye on the subject for 20 years, and the assumption that the church is not in the conversation needed to be dispelled. Not to mention, he said, he wanted to set an example.
“There has been this assumption that whenever you see a man is standing up and talking about [HIV or AIDS], then he is gay or HIV-positive. Well I am neither,” Waller said. “Other men and women need to be being given permission to get into this fight. It is sort of a, ‘Come on in the water, it is fine, approach.”
Bottom line for Waller, is that the church has a responsibility.
“HIV and AIDS is killing our community because of society and judgmental behavior surrounding diseases that are behavior based,” he said. “Stigma and ignorance are running the day.”Over the last 30 years, more than 200,000 black Americans with AIDS have died, according to the CDC. And HIV/AIDS is the third leading cause of death among black men and women ages 35 to 44. The rate among African Americans is eight times that of those Caucasian Americans living with HIV.
David Malebranche, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University, believes before the church can discuss HIV and AIDS, it has to first step back and deal with issues of sexuality.
“The church does not even talk about sexuality. To leap frog to homosexuality is a challenge,” said Malebranche whose research explores the reasons behind the HIV racial disparity in the Black community. “Are people going to be honest about sexuality and how they are going to express their sexuality in a church setting?”
Malebranche said he has worked with a lot of churches in different areas on this topic and recognizes that what works for him is how he approaches the discussion. Many times, he said, gay advocates come into arenas and shove “gay” down others’ throats.
“A lot of churches do not dig that. A lot of the gay movement comes from the white gay movement. The approach,” he said, “Has to be about sexuality and then dealt with in a larger context. Work on sexuality curriculum and work on it in the larger context.”
He said when gay advocates hit churches over the head with such a loaded word like gay, people lose the point and get stuck there, which is where a lot of churches fall prey. He suggests the best way to influence understanding is two-fold. First, sexuality must be normalized. Second, those involved in the debate – churches – must be given a point-of-reference they can understand.
“Ask them to put themselves in the shoes of others. Suggest that they think or feel or be attracted in a manner that is different from where they are normally…ask a straight man to no longer be straight,” he said.
Recently Malebranche participated in a talk with a group of pastors in Cartersville, GA, a town 40 to 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. They talked about this very issue, he said. The pastors wanted to do some HIV work.
“It was not so much about let’s put together a template to see how we can attack this. It was more about let’s talk through it. What are the issues, HIV prevention, sexuality issues, etc,” Malebranche said. “They all seemed very committed to wanting to do things. There were pastors there that had already done a lot of work around HIV and HIV ministry.”
And some were honest about their struggles around doing what they felt was right and obeying scripture.
“They felt helpless. ‘These are not my rules,’ they told me. ‘This is God’s word. I am conflicted,’” Malebranche said they shared with him. “I was very clear to the group that as pastors and as people of the cloth, if they want to get involved in the work they have to check themselves. HIV is not like high blood pressure.”
Things have been changing, said Raymond R. Duke, communicable disease specialist for STAND Inc. Prevention Services.
“People are fed up,” he said. “Just recently the Pope relaxed the Vatican’s stance on condom use. Wow, what a huge step in the right direction that was. So things are changing.”
Duke who is also an ordained minister said people are even changing the way they view bible, how it’s been used and who is welcomed at the table.
“Church goers are demanding change and even the design and make up of our traditional churches are changing thus changing how HIV/AIDS and stigma are viewed,” he said. “There will be differences in theology based upon cultural differences and people’s beliefs, but it is my prayer that we don’t measure the way we help and heal by the ruler we have used on HIV/AIDS these past 30 years.”
Malebranche is encouraged.
“I think there are some really good churches,” he said, referencing the Cartersville meeting. “Churches want to talk about this stuff in a mature manner. We disagree about our faith, but that does not mean we cannot be united in discussing this issue and its importance in the community.”