Balm for Body and Soul: Black Churches Take Lead in AIDS Outreach

Article excerpt

In the United States, African Americans account for 38 percent of all AIDS cases. Blacks make up 52 percent of all HIV infections in this country, while representingonly 12 percent of the population. Sub-Saharan Africa claims 71 percent of the world's HIV positive people while making up only 11 percent of the world population. And sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where the impact of AIDS is greater than it is in the Caribbean. Throughout the African Diaspora, Black people are affronted by this disease, showing the most increased number of HIV infections among any group.

But why? In recent years, efforts to curtail the epidemic have been successful among other groups. In 1987, white Americans accounted for 60 percent of all AIDS cases, but by 1995, they accounted for only 40 percent. Gay white men, who were initially (but mistakenly) viewed as the only susceptible group, are now diagnosed with AIDS at a significantly lower rate than they were in the 1980s, while the rates among Black gay men continue to climb. A recent New York City Department of Health survey found that in New York a startling 33 percent of young, gay Black men tested positive for HIV compared with just 2 percent in a similar group of white men. The figures for White women have dropped considerably, but African American women account for more than half (57 percent) of all women in the U.S. with AIDS. And the legacy is being passed to the community's babies. Black children make up 58.7 percent of pediatric AIDS cases in this country.

Early in the epidemic, ignorance fueled the spread of the disease. But now, more than 20 years later, nearly all Americans know the basic facts about AIDS. Most people know how the virus is spread -- through sexual contact, sharing needles when using intravenous drugs and mother-- to-child transmission during pregnancy. How is it that with the HIV education and prevention that has permeated our society, Black infection rates are not decreasing?

A primary key to a successful intervention in the HIV epidemic in the Black community has been under our noses all the time - the church. It may seem an unlikely choice in public health circles, but in the Black community it is no surprise.

"Historically, our churches have demonstrated responsibility for the care and leadership of the African American community," says Maurice Franklin, director of the faith-based HIV/AIDS technical assistance center at the Balm In Gilead in New York.

Critics have scolded the church for years, saying it wasn't there for Black folks as HIV and AIDS ravaged our community. But now, the Black church is at bat standing ready to knock AIDS out of the ballpark. The church becoming involved in the fight against AIDS is tearing down the stigma that has fueled its own lack of involvement and community division on whether the church should address AIDS.

And now, public health institutions are glomming onto the notion that to make a real impact on the HIV epidemic in the Black community, the church must be involved. Realizing that African Americans were disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the latter half of the last decade began building partnerships with state and local health departments and faith communities to reach African Americans at risk of infection.

CDC funding has supported the Balm In Gilead, the premier organization dedicated solely to mobilizing Black churches to become centers of compassion and care for those infected with or affected by HIV and AIDS.

"I was working at Harlem Hospital, seeing people die from AIDS with no family, no support - just alone," says Pernessa C. Seele, founder and CEO of the Balm In Gilead. "My upbringing in Lincolnville, South Carolina, told me that something was not right about that. Where was the church?"

That feeling pushed Seele to knock on the door of every well-known pastor in Harlem, asking each to support her idea for the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. …