Academic journal article Social Work

Legacy Denied: African American Gay Men, AIDS, and the Black Church

Academic journal article Social Work

Legacy Denied: African American Gay Men, AIDS, and the Black Church

Article excerpt

African American religious congregations have a historic role of providing African Americans religious education, spiritual formation, and shelter from societal oppression (Billingsley, 1992; Williams, 1972). However, there are African American gay men living with AIDS who feel alienated from African American religious congregations. These men experience various homophobic and AIDS-phobic messages that increase their feelings of stigma and castigation (Lima, Lo Presto, Sherman, & Sobelman, 1993), diminish their religious identity, and threaten the loss of salient cultural and historical resources unique to African American congregations (Miller, 2000). Although removing themselves from hostile or unsupportive religious environments may be adaptive (Mahaffy, 1996), the absence of important religious affiliations is a salient void in the lives of these men (Fullilove & Fullilove, 1999; Woodyard, Peterson, & Stokes, 2000).

As children, many African American gay men with AIDS are raised in African American families. African American families report significant church involvement (Bell & Bell, 1999; McAdoo & Crawford, 1990), derive benefits from church involvement (McRae,Thompson, & Cooper, 1999; Moore, 1991), and transmit the values of such involvement to their children (Haight, 2002). Although social science research has examined the value of church participation and religious affiliation in the lives of African Americans (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Taylor, Chatters, & Levin, 2004), there is a dearth of research on the religious development of African American gay men with AIDS. How do African American gay men living with AIDS experience religious development? Does their sexual orientation and disease status reveal a conflict with religiously sanctioned homophobia? How do they manage the potential conflicts?

This qualitative study used narrative data to examine the religious education and spiritual formation of 10 African American gay men living with AIDS and to describe their experience of religiously sanctioned homophobia, heterosexism, and AIDS phobia of the black church in the context of its historical opposition to societal prejudice and oppression. Examining how African American gay men living with AIDS manage their religious and spiritual involvement, sexual orientation, and disease status may help social workers understand the challenges such men may experience. It might also help social workers offer culturally relevant and emotionally restorative social work interventions for clients experiencing such losses.


African Americans and Religious Worship

For many African Americans, Christianity guides religious expression and worship. Many African Americans participate in religious worship or are affected by what is known as "the black church" (Billingsley, 1968, 1992; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990). Although there are many forms of religious participation that constitute African American worship, the following are consistent themes: (1) African American worship services are communal functions led by the pastor of the church; (2) the services are intended to deepen the relationship between the participants and God while restoring the dignity of the congregant's humanity; and (3) although the essential feature of the worship service is experiencing the sermon (Taylor, 1972), the service provides the congregant with additional benefits.

Through the worship service, congregants participate in traditional rituals that mark life events. To mark events such as births and weddings or illnesses and deaths, church leaders coordinate the various traditional rituals that celebrate and support church members. These supports are perceived as benefits and inherent rights of church membership. The worship service also occurs in a social, political, and historical context.

The black church has a legacy of social justice. Lincoln and Mamiya (1990) suggested the initial societal concern for the black church is ensuring freedom from race-based and other societal discrimination and oppression. …

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