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Sunday Begins Black Church Week of Prayer for AIDS
By: Makebra M. Anderson
NNPA, National Correspondent
Originally posted 2/21/2005

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Church sanctuaries will be filled this Sunday just like they are every week. Preachers will be imparting the gospel, deacons will be taking offering, ushers will be signaling and directing people to available seats and everyone will be praying. This Sunday, many churches will be offering a different payer – a prayer for the healing of AIDS.

“We believe that prayer changes things,” says Pernessa C. Seele, founder and CEO of the Balm in Gilead, Inc., the organizer of the Black Church Week of Prayer. “Whatever we do, we have to start with prayer. We are also asking churches to have AIDS education sermons, programs and Bible studies. We begin with prayer, but we know you have to study to show yourself approved. We have to pray, work and educate.”

This Sunday kicks off the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. It started 16 yeas ago as the Harlem Week of Prayer.

“I was working at Harlem Hospital back in 1989 and I was working in the AIDS service office. One of my responsibilities was to work with people living with HIV,” recalls Seele. “I was taken back by the lack of pastors and people in church that were present.”

Frustrated with what she calls a lack of concern for the ill, Seele began to pray.

“They [pastors and church members] weren’t coming to the hospital to see people with HIV. I am from Lincoln, S.C. and people come see you when you are sick and that is not what was happening. One morning I didn’t want to go to work and I was praying and I got an idea. It started as the Harlem Week of Prayer and from that The Balm in Gilead was born.”

The organization takes it name from Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”

The New York-based Balm in Gilead is currently one of the largest HIV/AIDS awareness programs in the U.S. and five Africa countries: Cote d’lvoire, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. Unlike most HIV/AIDS outreach programs, the Balm in Gilead, focuses on mobilizing faith communities and relies on them to, in turn, help get educate the community about HIV/AIDS.

“Churches are doing a better job at reaching people than the health department,” Seele explains. “What’s happening is when people take a chance and go to the church, they find some of the retired nurses and folks that look like mama. They smell food cooking and it’s a friendly environment. People are coming back to get checked up because they build relationships.” That’s our culture.”
Because the church plays such a vital role in the Black community, Seele is concerned that the churches hang-ups are having a negative impact on the health of African-Americans.

“I think often times the whole issue of sex and homosexuality stops the discussion of HIV/AIDS. Many church leaders don’t know how to approach that issue or they believe that homosexuality causes HIV. Since they are against homosexuality they don’t talk about HIV,” she says.

Such views can be counterproductive in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“The impact is grave in our community,” Seele says. “I am always surprised that so many believe that homosexuality causes AIDS. They don’t address women and kids getting HIV through heterosexual contact at all. They believe if we get rid of homosexuality, we get rid of AIDS. The real issue is we have a major crisis that is affecting our community and killing our children.”

African-Americans represent only 12 percent of the population, but account for 54 percent of all new AIDS cases. Significantly, Black women are more likely to get AIDS from heterosexual activity than White women. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 67 percent of Black women are infected that way, compared to 59 percent of White women.

Of newly-infected women in the U.S., approximately 64 percent are Black, 18 percent are White and 18 percent are Hispanic. Of newly-infected men, approximately 50 percent are Black, 30 percent are White and 20 percent are Hispanic.

The numbers for young people are equally alarming. HIV/AIDS continues to be one of the top five killers for teenagers. In 2000, 1,688 young people between 13 and 24 were reported having AIDS, bringing the total cases among this group to 31,293. It is estimated that today almost half of new HIV infections occur among teenagers and almost 65 percent of them Black.

Seele says the Black church must step in before the epidemic destroys the Black community.

“The fist role of the Black church is to dismantle the stigma. It’s the stigma that drives people not to get tested or treated. That stigma has its root in the idea that AIDS is sin. That has to change if we want to make progress,” she explains. “Next, they must educate the community about the disease and provide information.”

During the week of prayer, the Balm in Gilead will be helping churches do just that. The organization will help churches develop HIV/AIDS ministries, provide HIV/AIDS fact sheets and offer technical assistance and training.

In a letter to pastors, Seele wrote, “On Sunday, March 6, and throughout the week of the 16th Annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, The Balm In Gilead is asking you, once again, to reach beyond your neighborhood, community, village or city, and come together in prayer for the healing of AIDS. As we pray without ceasing, let us also provide prevention education forums, HIV testing stations, treatment education workshops—all for the healing of AIDS.”

In addition to the week of prayer, the Balm In Gilead is also organizing an AIDS testing campaign this summer.

“At the end of the week of prayer we start working on our testing campaign. The campaign is in June and is called Our Church Lights The Way. We have to get tested because many people don’t even know they have the disease,” Seele states.

She says everyone has a role to play.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to be talking. We should be focusing on HIV/AIDS and not Michael Jackson’s sexual scandal. His business is not going to stop anyone from getting HIV,” she says. “We need to talk about it at breakfast, dinner, at school and on the bus. There are many churches that now have HIV clinics, testing services, and those churches need to be lifted up as model churches.”

It’s sometimes difficult for Seele to keep her spirits lifted.

“We’ve been fighting for 22 years and young people are still getting AIDS. Why?” she asks. “I feel like I along with others haven’t done enough. How can I be more effective? What can I do differently? I’m afraid for us a people world-wide. This has a choke hold on us as a people.”

And she says Black people need to respond.

“We don’t see the response of the Tsunami in the Black community,” Seele notes. “We must understand what our responsibility is. We must fight this epidemic ourselves. If we just took 10 percent of what we spend and put it into HIV/AIDS resources imagine what we could do.”

[To register as a participant in the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS 2005 visit the Balm in Gilead Website at Complete the online registration form or download and fax it to 212-730-2551. If you do not have internet access, contact 888-225-6243 and request registration information.]

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