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Spreading the Word, Turning the Tide: Black Clergy Work to End AIDS

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Pastors reinforce public health message that is social justice and faith-friendly.
HIV National Testing Day  is June 27.
By J. Carlton Zeigler for Healthy Living News
A new study reveals that for black clergy members, traditional barriers to talking about HIV prevention are giving way to faith-friendly messages about getting tested for HIV and staying on treatment. The study, recently published in the prestigious journal Public Library of Science, shows that black community religious leaders now see battling AIDS as a social justice issue compatible with their religious teachings. The study results come at a time of immense hope for turning the tide against the HIV epidemic. As a result, more and more black clergy are joining the fight to help put an end to AIDS.
“We in public health have done a poor job of engaging African-American community leaders and particularly black clergy members in HIV prevention,” says Dr. Amy Nunn, lead author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University. “There is a common miss-perception that African American churches are unwilling to address the AIDS epidemic. The paper highlights some of the historical barriers in effectively engaging African American clergy in HIV prevention and provides recommendations from clergy for how to move forward.”
The study consisted of interviews and focus groups with 38 African-American pastors and physicians and public health researchers from Philadelphia, a city with an exceptionally high racial disparity of HIV infection. Seven in ten new infections in the city are among black residents.
Until participating in the research, many clergy members were unfamiliar with the severity of the HIV epidemic within their communities. With 32 million lives already lost due to HIV and grim statistics underlying grim health prospects for many in the black community, nearly all of the studies 27 male and 11 female clergy said they could, and would discuss and promote HIV testing and treatment.
This seems fitting considering that according to CDC, African Americans are 14% of the US population but are 44% of new HIV infections. One in four African Americans will contract HIV within their lifetime. A recent study also showed that new-infection rates among black women in some U.S. cities are as high as in parts of sub-Sahara Africa. Infection rates in the U.S. are also alarmingly high among black men who have sex with other men. And with 20% of the more than one million people with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. not knowing they have it, there is a ticking time-bomb hidden within already deeply impacted communities.
Across the country, black houses of faith are now trying to fight back, both in the pulpit and out in the community.
In Chicago, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the interfaith coalition, Faith Responds to AIDS, are holding forums on the epidemic as well as performing HIV testing in dozens of predominantly black churches throughout the city.
The Dallas County Health and Human Services Department, The Dallas Examiner, and several of the cities black churches are engaged in a city-wide effort to call attention to the disease.
Meanwhile, the organization The Balm In Gilead has set a goal of engaging 1000 houses of wordhip to participate in HIV testing events during the month of June. June 27th is National HIV Testing Day.
With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the NIH’s Tony Fauci, along with other HIV experts declaring that an end of AIDS may be in sight, the “test and treat” message, when delivered by local clergy, provides a needed boost to decades of marginally effective HIV prevention efforts.
Without the full support and efforts of community religious leaders and their places of worship, it is feared that the extraordinary scientific breakthroughs of the past several years won’t be utilized within black communities and that the epidemic will spin further out of control. One especially important study showed that putting infected people on treatment can dramatically reduce the transmission of HIV to others by 96-percent. Other studies have revealed that taking a daily HIV antiviral pill can help stop those at high risk from becoming infected with the virus. Known as “HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis”, or “PrEP”, a pill will probably be approved for that purpose this Fall. In addition, HIV infection testing kits for home use will soon be available making it easier to test for the virus anytime, anyplace.
“For decades, we’ve focused many HIV prevention efforts on reducing risky behavior,” says Dr. Nunn. “Focusing on HIV testing and treatment should be the backbone of HIV prevention strategies and efforts to reduce racial disparities in HIV infection. Making HIV testing routine is the gateway to getting more individuals on treatment. African American clergy have an important role to play in the routinization of HIV testing.”
With these new tools, black clergy members feel now is the time for action. However, these religious leaders acknowledged there are barriers. Particularly challenging for them is discussing human sexuality in a church or mosque.
“One time my pastor spoke to young people about sex, mentioning using protection,” states one clergy member in Dr. Nunn’s study. “I was sitting in the clergy row; you could feel the heat! I was surprised he said that. Comments from the clergy highlighted that they were opposed to that topic. It’s a tightrope walk.”
Clergy members also face the challenge of talking about minimizing risk behaviors along with discussing abstinence.
“It’s my duty as a preacher to tell people to abstain,” added another pastor, “but if they’re still having sex and they’re getting HIV, there has to be another way to handle this.”
One method church leaders are trying is to make the issue less about sex and more about society. To place the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a non-judgmental social justice context rather than a behavioral one. So church leaders emphasize that having an HIV test is important to both the immediate and the greater community at large. Doing so may reduce both the stigma and the spread of this deadly virus.
“One thing that we could do immediately is to encourage our congregations — everybody — to get tested. We’re not dealing with risk factors and we’re all going to get tested once a year,” another pastor told the researchers. “That’s the one thing that we could do that doesn’t get into our doctrine about sexuality.”
Many religious leaders are also encouraging discussion of HIV beyond primary worship services, such as in ministries and out into the community. For example, dozens of Philadelphia church and community leaders will soon participate in an HIV prevention campaign that includes door-to-door testing in neighborhoods with the highest infection rates.
“Religious leaders are, in fact, willing to engage in a dialogue and HIV prevention, if you do it in a culturally appropriate and faith-friendly way,” says Dr. Nunn.

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