Can Black Clergy Reframe AIDS Fight?

A Philadelphia program involving them could serve as a model for tackling HIV via the pulpit.

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Changing the Emphasis

Pastor Alyn Waller, who presides over the 15,000-member megachurch Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, promotes ABC: Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms. "We talk about it in that order," he said during a phone interview with The Root. "If you're not going to listen to the previous two from me, then in every sexual encounter use condoms."  

But the area in which Waller has really taken the lead is testing awareness. When asked which ways he believes pastors can be most impactful in the fight against AIDS, Waller said, "Because of the nature of the church, we have the ability to address the issue of stigma through special campaigns around testing." To drive his point home, Waller once had an AIDS test conducted from the pulpit during one of his Sunday services in an effort to remove both the stigma and fear of taking one.

When asked if he believes having other high-profile African Americans doing the same, such as the Obamas, would make a difference to removing the stigma, he said he believed it would. More important than having the Obamas do it, he stressed, "We need more local heroes to do it." Waller noted that he encourages his parishioners to schedule getting tested in groups, even if individuals participating know they don't really need testing, in an effort to remove the stigma, embarrassment and discomfort from those who do. 

Amy Nunn believes this approach can ultimately save lives. "All of our data now show that testing and treatment are our most effective HIV-prevention interventions, and we have not focused historically, I think, enough effort on testing and treatment and how to develop partnerships with clergy to promote testing and treatment."

Nunn cited new data published by Miren Cohen in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicating that when those who are HIV-positive adhere to appropriate medication regimens, their likelihood of transmitting the disease to others decreases. "Before, we thought the answer was going to be in getting people to change their behavior. Well, that hasn't worked very well. On a population level, that's had a really negligible impact on HIV transmission," she said, which is why she and other experts now believe testing, treatment and education are the new keys to fighting the disease. 

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Phil Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute said, "I think the most important work of black ministers is to help their congregations understand what HIV really is, and encourage them to get factual information." 

Tackling Touchy Topics

When asked what he would say to any pastor nervous about wading into a conversation about AIDS because it may raise traditionally difficult subjects such as sex, Pastor Jonathan Ford of Taylor Tabernacle Church said, "They're doing it [sex] anyway. The reality is, if you ever read your Bible, it talks about a lot of [sexual] stuff." He explained that as the pastor of a congregation with relatively young parishioners, he simply doesn't have the option of ignoring sex.