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Churches Step up AIDS Campaign this Weekend
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 3/12/2006

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Seventeen years ago, some pastors were actually afraid to get into the same baptism pool with people who had AIDS.

The deadly disease and its causal virus, HIV, were taboo conversations – even in the pulpit.

Now, thousands of Black ministers are not only addressing AIDs in their sermons, but – for the 17th year – an increasing number will actually participate in a seven-day annual conference March 5-11 to pray for the healing of AIDS around the world and to educate themselves on dealing with it in their communities.

“There is a lot of good news to report in terms of how far Black ministers have come on the subject of HIV and AIDS. We have really some serious models of HIV ministries in Black churches today,” says Pernessa Seele, founder and chief executive officer of the Balm in Gilead, Inc., now 17 years old. “But, certainly there are far too many Catholics who are still not addressing the issues. But we can certainly point to some AIDS ministries with denominational leaders who are actively giving their voice to HIV. There’s movement. There’s major movement among the Black churches on AIDS and HIV.”

That movement has been gradual over the past 25 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U. S. in 1981.

“I think the major drawback is that people can not move from their belief that AIDS is a homosexual disease,” says Seele. “And the issues around people’s feelings and beliefs regarding homosexuality has stopped them from getting educated.”

Church leaders interested in getting involved can visit the event’s Website at

Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y. agrees that stigmas have stymied AIDS education.

“Suspicions, misinformation, interpretations of God’s vengeance for sin corrupted the church’s ability to have an appropriate response,” says Richardson. ''But over time, information has gotten out on HIV/AIDS, how it is passed on. Light has helped disperse the darkness.''

Richardson will be just one of the prominent voices at the conference this year.

When Seele held her first Balm in Gilead conference in New York in 1989, only 50 churches participated, This year, she is expecting between 15,000 and 20,000 Black church-based AIDS ministry teams.

Some of the most prominent voices from America’s Black churches have committed to attend.

They include: Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram, president, Council of Bishops, African Methodist Episcopal Church; Bishop George W.C. Walker, senior bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Bishop Marshall Gilmore, senior bishop, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Rev. Stephen John Thurston, president; National Baptist Convention of America; Rev. Dr. Major Lewis Jemison, president, Progressive National Baptist Convention; Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw, president, National Baptist Convention, USA; Rev. Dr. Arlee Griffin, president, American Baptist Churches, USA; and the Rev. Canon Nelson Pinder, president, Union of Black Episcopalians.

“Education is the most important key in eliminating this dreaded disease,” says Walker, senior bishop, AME Zion Church, in a statement. “And the church is certainly one major medium through which this can be accomplished over a period of time.”

The focus of discussions about the cause of AIDS has changed over the years and broadened outside of the homosexual community to involve the majority of church congregations, says Seele.

“Eighty percent of all women affected with HIV in this country today are Black women. And they’re getting it from heterosexual sex,” she says. “Where Black women are affected, children are affected, where the family is affected, the community is affected.”

Whereas the taboos used to be about homosexuality, there are now reservations about the cause of the HIV growth in Black women, says Seele.

“We are dealing with multiple sex partners with men who are married, men who are in the church,” she says. “We are talking about bi-sexual men, men who are married, who are in the church, who are deacons, who are pastors. So, we’re not just talking about, you know, the negative ‘down low brother.’ We’re talking about the reality of life. Just the gentlemen who are the leaders in our community.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that AIDS is the fourth-leading cause of death among women ages 25-44 in America; the leading cause of death among African-American women ages 25 to 34; the fifth largest leading cause of death for people 25-44 years old in the United States, and the leading cause of death for African-American men ages 35-44.

Even as the statistics are well saturated in the community and the Balm participation numbers have increased, there is still not enough education in the Black church, says Richardson.

“Still, the place where we are today is not where we need to be,” he says. “It’s a place of more knowledge, but it’s still a place of apathy. And also still a place of whispering, a place of discrimination that helps to foster and add to the numbers…Transparency, speaking out about it will help cut back the affect of HIV/AIDS.”

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