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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Yet Ford has also found a more diplomatic message that works well for him. While his church has incorporated a nonprofit called Turning the Tide, which provides HIV testing and other services, the message he is most comfortable emphasizing with parishioners and the public at large is "People are hurting."

He went on to explain that in the same way that there are people in his congregation living with cancer, and you wouldn't ignore them, why should anyone ignore those living with HIV? "My ZIP code is one of the highest for reported AIDS cases in Philadelphia. I have to ask myself, if this is happening in my ZIP code, that means there are probably people in my congregation hurting and suffering from this epidemic. So, I can ignore it and talk about other things, or begin to address it and open up to a larger population to ultimately be embraced by the message we want to preach, which is Christ Jesus." 

Though communications and messaging can seem like relatively small tools on which to focus in the battle against AIDS, Waller noted they are important ones. He and Ford both acknowledged that there was a perception in the early days of AIDS that it was a "gay, white man's disease," and therefore people in the black community didn't need to worry about being at risk. That perception, of course, changed with the diagnosis of high-profile figures within the black community, like Magic Johnson.

Waller has found it troubling that in perception, at least, AIDS advocacy became intertwined with LGBT advocacy, making it difficult for some members of the clergy to speak out on AIDS, even when they wanted to. Waller said he often has felt frustrated by those he views as extremists on both sides of the issues -- those who want to bully gay people out of the church and those pushing acceptance of same-sex marriage as an extension of other social justice efforts within his church.

"It seemed if you were anywhere in the conversation of HIV/AIDS that you were a proponent of LGBT rights," he said. "I still hold the position of homosexuality not being the creational intentionality of God, but neither is irresponsible heterosexuality. That distinguishes my missional position from [that of] the far right. In all of our churches there are homosexuals who are good people who love God." He added, "I think you can deal with the disease without taking a position on LGBT rights."

Phil Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute explained that there are plenty of ways for pastors to tackle the AIDS crisis within their churches without wading into waters that make them uncomfortable. "I think black pastors finding ways to be consistent in their theological beliefs while acknowledging devastation of AIDS --  there are ways to do that. For instance, if the clergy are interested in justice, then health is a justice issue, so one of the most important thing clergy can do is talk about the Affordable Care Act. One of the most important things we can do to stem the spread of HIV in our community is help implement the Affordable Care Act."

Finally Getting Through

Once pastors found the messaging that worked for them, Nunn helped them spearhead a citywide campaign for AIDS awareness that included billboards featuring the various pastors, public service announcements about testing as well as local interviews with clergy. Waller noted, "In one day we tested 1,000 people." Ford said that after appearing on the radio at Nunn's urging, "We increased our testing by 25 percent in a two-week period."

Because of the impact of her work in Philadelphia, Nunn is striving to take the Philadelphia pilot program to cities nationwide. Ford calls Nunn's work "critical" to the fight against AIDS. When asked if it is a fight in which all ministers have a responsibility to engage, Ford pointed out, "Churches often follow the passion of their pastors." He later said, "I think pastors have a responsibility to talk about anything that has a foundation in the Bible. If the Bible talks about it, we need to talk about it. How it relates to AIDS is that the Bible talks about sexuality," so pastors need to find a way to talk about AIDS as well. 

Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.