OPINION – This Friday – National HIV Testing Day – the Black Church must step up and remind our congregations of what’s at stake.
The numbers don’t lie: African-Americans experience the most severe burden of this terrible disease, making up 12% of the U.S. population yet account for 44% of new HIV infections.
Our young people are tragically often the most affected: according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 25% of new HIV infections are among adolescents and young adults ages 13-24. Many are these youth are unaware of their status and are not being treated, which places themselves and others at risk. The CDC estimates that overall as many as one in six Americans infected with HIV do not even know it.
Thus the question of “Is it necessary” to test for HIV in the Black Church is one that statistical data has answered with a resounding “YES.” The question that is not often answered is “HOW?”
There is no template for HIV testing in the Black Church, as the institution itself is not monolithic. Every church setting provides a different context. Yet, there are certainly best practices that have proven to be effective in these varied environments. Here are a few:
1. The Senior Pastor Must Lead Testing from the Front
Shepherds are leaders of sheep. Before moving sheep to a new land, shepherds go to that land first and prepare it for the arrival of the sheep. They never take their sheep anywhere they have not gone themselves. Likewise, senior pastors must lead their congregations in HIV testing moments by taking the test themselves first. I advise doing it in front of the congregation. By doing so, the fear of testing is often alleviated. Furthermore, initiatives that have the senior pastor’s support are translated as important in the eyes of the congregation. If the pulpit does it, so will the pew.
2. Maximize Partnerships with Organizations for Testing
HIV testing for a congregation can seem daunting. However, it does not have to be. There are organizations in your community that do this work every single day. Utilize their strengths by sharing your space for testing. Most of these non-profits, health clinics, and community health professionals who are not only willing to partner with churches – they are begging for the opportunity to do so. Partnerships are a win-win proposition. The church receives subject matter expertise, and the health provider receives the chance to serve people they may not have seen without the church’s influence.
3. Leverage Technology for Testing “Evangelism”
Social media is the marketplace for today’s communication. Most churches use social media to spread their message. Use this same medium for sharing the HIV testing initiative. Encourage members to post pictures and messages to proclaim they have been tested. Use hashtags to link all of these posts and share them through the church’s social media outlets. This initiative not only engages the church in testing, but makes it “cool.” Moreover, it communicates the importance of testing with those connected to your members on social media that may never attend your church. Reach of the message expands when you allow your members to be the messengers.
When faith leaders get involved, we truly can make a difference. Please don’t forget that on National HIV Testing Day this Friday. Together we can raise awareness and help stem the tide of this deadly scourge on our communities.