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HIV/AIDS and the Black church

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Throughout history, the Black church has long been a prominent figure in the progression of the various social issues that have affected the African-American community.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new estimates suggesting that African-Americans accounted for over 45 percent of the 56,300 new HIV infections occurring in the United States during 2006 despite only making up 13 percent of the entire population.

These new figures are causing a natiowide uproar and leaving many to wonder what efforts are being made within the church to address this devastating epidemic.

“The Black church has long been a strong powerhouse within the Black community because many people look up to the leaders of their church,” said Evangelist Gregory C. Irvin of Reach Out Ministries. “I know many people who have fallen from God because they felt the church didn’t care. We must realize that this is no longer a gay, white man disease and those within our community are hurting the most.”

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, Black women represent 47 percent of the newly reported HIV cases in Indiana while Black men make-up 43 percent.

Irvin, who in 2004 was diagnosed with AIDS but received an undetectable diagnosis exactly a year later, created Reach Out Ministries as a way to minister to those inside of the church living with HIV/AIDS in Indianapolis. Using his own story as a way to more effectively connect to those suffering, he also uses his organization to provide training and teachings to pastors wanting to obtain more information about this disease.

“Sunday after Sunday I would sit in church with this burden that I was hiding from the church,” Irvin said. “After giving my first testimony in church, I felt this sense of relief. It’s amazing how many people are either affected or infected by this disease and are struggling to cope.”

Similar to Reach Out Ministries, Bridging The Gap Project is another faith-based organization that is ministering to the local African-American community.

“Bridging The Gap Project is a health initiative that works in minority communities using a three-pronged strategy of awareness, application and advocacy to provide HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention,” Kimberly Wells, director of Bridging The Gap Project, said. “We provide a support system that encompasses bettering the overall individual mentally, physically and spiritually.”

Created by the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church Foundation, Bridging The Gap provides such services as HIV prevention counseling, mental health services, medical referrals, HIV/AIDS training workshops and support groups. According to Wells, Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Brown, the founder of this organization and pastor of Ebenezer, also uses his influence at the pulpit to create open dialogue about this subject.

“Even though the church has made some progress towards HIV/AIDS awareness we still have a long way to go,” Wells said. “Unfortunately, there is still this stigma for individuals with this disease. We must get away from passing judgment and help those in need. Rev. Brown does a good job of setting the tone for honest conversations about this disease and what needs to be done to help put an end to its spread.”

Even though sexual contact is not the only way to contract HIV, this mode of transmission is most commonly known causing many religious leaders to avoid discussing sexual practices in regards to premarital sex. However like Rev. Brown and Bishop T.D. Jakes, who has dedicated sermons to his subject, more religious leaders are beginning to break their silence.

“Talking about HIV/AIDS within the church forces a more difficult discussion about sexual behavior and responsibility, which pastoral leadership may not want to discuss due to their own personal stance or due to fear of the congregation’s reaction,” said Rev. Elaine Walters, director of the Indiana Minority AIDS Coalition (IMAC).

Walters believes that since sexuality is such a controversial topic within religion, church leaders should instead look to organizations like IMAC and Bridging The Gap as resources to lead such discussions or to provide information. Nationally, The Balm of Gilead Inc. is a not-for-profit organization that directly works with interested churches to address various life-threatening diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.

For 19 years, The Balm of Gilead has provided such programs as The Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS and other educational tools to stand as a guide for churches.

“The Black church is the only place where on a regular basis you have such a cross section of intergenerational and socio-economic diversity in one location,” said Rev. Makeba D’Abreu, director of Domestic HIV Programs with The Balm of Gilead. “Many people would rather seek out advice from their pastor than from a medical physician. The church is the perfect place to provide a suffering community with informative information.”

According to D’Abreu, not only has the Black church not done enough about this crisis, but the overall Black community must do more in order to diminish the spread of this virus which leads to AIDS.

In Indianapolis, previously established faith-based programs are working with such organizations as The Bethlehem House and The Damien Center to encourage community involvement in this ongoing battle.

“As Christians, instead of wondering how and trying to pass judgment we must realize that we are all works in progress,” Walters said. “Try to help and pray for these individuals who are suffering. Do as Jesus did. If we don’t reach out now, then more and more people will become infected and this disease will destroy our community.”

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