As a volunteer health outreach worker for Abundant Life Community Church, Walter Morrison counsels people before and after they get HIV tests.
He helps them find housing if they need it, gets them referrals to doctors, and even drives them to appointments if they need transportation.
More and more, congregants like Morrison and churches like Abundant Life are working to help stem the disproportionate increase in HIV and AIDS cases among African-Americans, a trend in Northeast Florida and the nation.
At the request of health officials, churches are talking to their membership and community about preventing infection and treating AIDS. In some cases, churches even want to provide HIV testing.
"When the program first started . . . it was in a slow-gear mode, and pastors were kind of leery about the Christian response to HIV and AIDS," said Toni James, health training specialist for the Duval County Health Department. "Now, the doors are starting to open up."
Giving clergy statistics about HIV infection rates among African-Americans, as well as statements about the scope of the crisis from the surgeon general and national African-American political leaders is making a difference, said Jackie Nash, health department prevention coordinator.
"One of the greatest problems in the HIV/AIDS battle is it was presented to us in the '80s and early '90s as a gay, white male disease," said the Rev. Leon Seymore, pastor at Tabernacle of the Temples. He is chairman of the African-American HIV/AIDS Task Force, formed last summer by state Rep. Anthony Hill.
While just a couple churches were doing AIDS outreach last summer, now more than half a dozen are involved, including First Timothy Baptist Church, Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church, Tabernacle of the Temples Fellowship, Abundant Life and Miracle Deliverance Temple. More are expected.
The health department provides churches free support and materials. And its training program is sensitive to the use of explicit words or descriptions that many people feel would have no place in a church setting, James said.
The Minority AIDS Coalition will use a $50,000 federal grant to teach outreach techniques to four Duval County churches.
And today, the HIV/AIDS task force will host an AfricanAmerican Pastors Educational Summit, a free banquet for African-American ministers at Edward Waters College to discuss how churches can combat HIV and AIDS.
Sheila Upson, church evangelist and health ministry coordinator for Miracle Deliverance, said her church thinks it's important to talk with congregants about ways they can protect themselves from HIV. …