From the pulpit to the pew: HIV/AIDS and the black church

ESSAY - A conversation about HIV/AIDS must begin in the pulpit and reach the pew so it can reverberate to the streets, and underscore the prevalence of this disease...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Between moments of exuberant worship and quiet prayer, Rev. Timothy Sloan of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Humble, Texas, infuses his lesson of the day with a topic once considered taboo if not completely off limits among black congregations.

The message of awareness rang throughout the walls of the church at a recent service as part of a larger effort to address a challenge that Sloan and a growing number of pastors are aligning with the NAACP to combat – the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its impact on the African-American community.

Combatting HIV/AIDS through the black church

The increased, collaborative effort to destigmatize and address HIV comes at an urgent time for black Americans. More than one million people in the U.S. are living with the disease, and African-Americans suffer from some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the country. African-Americans represent approximately 14 percent of the U.S. population but accounted for almost 46 percent of people living with HIV in 2008, and constituted an estimated 44 percent of new infections in 2009.

The NAACP and its partner, Gilead Sciences, are equipping Sloan and faith leaders across the country with new ways to engage their congregants in conversations about HIV/AIDS, by urging them to be health activists who advocate for health equity, frequent HIV screenings and access to affordable health care.

Sloan’s church now holds a yearly HIV/AIDS Town Hall Meeting that combines the voices of local advocates and organizations to talk about awareness. They also host local trainings for pastors and faith leaders on how to take action to end this epidemic.

Black church: A history of helping

Since the beginning, 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 same black church that ushered in the historic victories of the Civil Rights era will stand once again at the forefront of this important social justice issue.

But despite the Center for Disease Control’s alarming findings that the number of new HIV/AIDS infections among blacks is nearly 8 times the rate of whites and double that of Latinos, churches have historically avoided discussion of the disease in order to skirt other taboo topics such as homosexuality and premarital sex.

Pastor Sloan, along with dozens of pastors across the country, understands that to truly stop this crisis, the church must serve as a reliable and audacious partner in the fight to end HIV/AIDS. Joining the fight, the NAACP, another longtime institution in the black community has actively engaged in bringing pastors and health advocates to the front line of this epidemic.

A grassroots method of intervention

Two years ago, the NAACP and our partner in this initiative Gilead Sciences, began a 12-city research tour to cities with a high prevalence of HIV among African-Americans. We met with over 250 faith leaders across denominations to identify best practices and challenges when addressing HIV within the black church. In response, the NAACP developed The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative.

As part of the pilot initiative, we produced a Pastoral Brief to assist and encourage faith leaders to engage in HIV discussion and advocacy.  These briefs assist pastors in talking about HIV/AIDS in their sermons, connecting their churches with groups that serve people with HIV, promoting safe sex and access to condoms, and organizing church-based HIV screening drives.

Our efforts are taking root. Earlier this summer, the NAACP held its second annual Day of Unity. In nearly 100 cities across the country, faith leaders committed to preach about HIV/AIDS as a social justice issue, educate their parishioners about treatment and prevention, and stress the normalcy of routine testing.

But there’s much work to be done. To double down in our fight against the disease, we at the NAACP and Gilead Sciences just announced our joint Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to significantly scale up our response to HIV/AIDS.

Black faith leaders unite for change

Leveraging CGI’s model of creating impactful solutions to pressing global challenges by forging partnerships across boundaries, we aim to train nearly 3,000 black faith leaders – whose congregations in 30 U.S. cities constitute roughly two-thirds of the nation’s HIV epidemic – to turn the tide on HIV/AIDS in black America.

This is a social justice issue. Research shows that African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by this disease, not because we are more promiscuous, but because, more than any other racial group, we live in areas with high concentrations of HIV infections. We also know that socio-economic disparities have burdened the black community for generations including inadequate access to care, disproportionate rates of poverty, and limited access to screenings.

NAACP: Taking a powerful stand

We at the NAACP have a responsibility speak up for those who do not have a voice –  the undiagnosed – by advocating for increased testing, education, and policies aimed at stopping the rates of new infections and increasing the access to care, especially in communities of color. We must also eradicate the stigma facing HIV-positive people of color, who need compassion and resources the most. But we can’t succeed in this journey alone. The black church must be our partner.

A conversation about HIV/AIDS must begin in the pulpit and reach the pew so it can reverberate to the streets, and underscore the prevalence of this disease. Rev. Sloan is doing his part to break down the barriers to empowerment at his Baptist church in Humble, Texas, and it will take faith leaders like him from every state and every denomination to make a dent in this disease.

Together, we have the power – and the social justice imperative – to take a stand. Let’s exhibit the courage.