Black churches are more than places of worship.
They are also change agents for their communities, uniting people around the world to take action and improve conditions for marginalized populations. Since the push for abolition, black faith leaders have been instrumental in dismantling some of the biggest challenges to equality and human dignity in the United States.
But this week, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day reminds us that proponents of social justice are faced with a new kind of adversary, which is waging battles from New York City to Nashville, Tenn., where I lead a congregation. The visionary leadership that helped the black church fight the scourges of slavery and Jim Crow is desperately needed in the devastating war against HIV.
Make no mistake, what we face is an epidemic, one that’s fueled by poverty, social inequality, and institutionalized racism. Today, HIV affects African-Americans far more than any other racial or ethnic group in the country: while we constitute just 13 percent of the population, we account for more than 40 percent of people living with HIV in the United States. The most marginalized among us are the most at risk. This is truly unacceptable — to us as faith leaders, to our community as a whole, and to the God we serve.
This week is an opportunity to finally, fully recognize the scope of this epidemic and commemorate the hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters it has taken from us. For faith leaders like me, it is vital that we take up arms in this fight, committing to educate, engage, and motivate our congregations to help end the crisis.
Overall, about one in 16 African-American men and one in 32 African-American women will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetimes. Like many African-Americans, I have been personally touched by the epidemic, having lost a family member and a friend to AIDS. Both died in their twenties — far before their time — because they discovered their HIV infections too late.
But I don’t blame the virus. I blame silence. Deadly silence — from friends, family and places of worship — replaced the necessary conversations that could have led to testing. No loved one, faith leader, or health provider created the space for these young people to receive life-saving information on HIV prevention or treatment.
As their conditions deteriorated, the silence remained. They both lacked adequate care because their loved ones feared a disease they did not understand. The silence continued even after their passing. Their loved ones attributed their deaths to “pneumonia” and “cancer,” scared that the stigma of HIV would tarnish the reputation of their families.
The killer remained unnamed. And unfortunately, stories like mine are far too common. This painful narrative will continue until we speak up to end stigma and injustice.
Determined to end this deadly silence and create a movement for health equity, the NAACP partnered with Gilead Sciences in 2011 to create The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative. As an Ambassador for the initiative, I am calling on African-American faith leaders from around the country to break the stigma surrounding this disease, educate their congregations through meaningful conversation, provide spiritual support and guidance for people living with HIV and encourage congregants to proactively learn their status.
I know all too well that “faith without works is dead,” which is why I was encouraged when in 2013 the NAACP and Gilead walked the walk by making a “Commitment to Action” through the Clinton Global Initiative to significantly scale up The Black Church & HIV initiative.
By 2018, we aim to conduct 45 faith leader trainings in the 30 cities most impacted by HIV, secure proactive resolutions from seven of nine historically black mainline denominations, and integrate HIV as a social justice issue into required curricula in five predominantly African-American theological seminaries.
We’ve made progress on our CGI commitment — 500 more faith leaders are rallying their congregations to fight this epidemic because of our effort. But we need hundreds more to help lead us to a new Promised Land where, instead of milk and honey, good health and true justice await us.
As faith leaders in the African-American community, we have a unique opportunity to carry out God’s work by replacing silence with education, empathy, and compassion before the epidemic claims more of our brothers and sisters.
I am calling on all members of the cloth to ensure that the black church that fought for justice in Birmingham and Selma is the institution that helps black America finally win the standoff against the HIV epidemic.
Pastor John R. Faison, Sr. serves as the Senior Pastor of Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, as well as an HIV/AIDS National Ambassador for the NAACP.