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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Pastor Allyn Waller; Pastor Jonathan Ford (YouTube)

(The Root) -- From Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights in the 1960s to Rev. Al Sharpton and the fight against racial profiling and police brutality today, members of the clergy have been key leaders in some of the black community's most important battles. Yet there is one issue plaguing the community on which black pastors, as a whole, have not been perceived as leaders: the fight against HIV/AIDS. 

Despite the fact that African Americans now lead the nation in new cases of the HIV virus, and the fact that AIDS is the third leading cause of death among black men and women ages 35 to 44, the issue has not been embraced as a priority social justice issue by many predominantly black churches. While black pastors, for instance, played key roles as visible and vocal champions of voting and voter access this election cycle, fewer have used their weight similarly to mobilize their congregations around the issue of HIV awareness, prevention and testing.

Phil Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, told The Root that "black pastors are engaged more than they were in the past, but not as much as they need to be, given the disproportionate impact on our community." But new research shows that they could be the key to overcoming cultural barriers to fighting the spread of AIDS in the black community. 

Opening a New Battlefront

According to research released earlier this year by Brown University's Amy Nunn, the role of black pastors could be pivotal to stemming the spread of the disease. Nunn, an assistant professor of medicine (research) in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brown Medical School, specializes in studying the connection between culture, communities and AIDS policy. She was shocked that she could not find any published research on the attitudes of black pastors on the issue of AIDS and AIDS awareness and the potential role they could play in addressing the issue.

"People have been so negative about engaging clergy, but when I looked at the science, I realized that no one had really ever bothered to ask clergy what they think," she said. So Nunn decided to engage them. She conducted intensive focus groups and interviews with 38 black pastors and members of the clergy in Philadelphia, in part because the city has some of the country's most alarming AIDS rates. (Seven out of 10 of the city's new AIDS diagnoses are among black residents.) She also selected Philadelphia because it is home to some of the nation's oldest and largest African-American churches. 

The results may come as a surprise to some.

"A lot of people think these clergy are homophobic and unwilling to get involved," Nunn said. "I did not find that to be the case." To the contrary, Nunn found that as soon as those who were not aware about AIDS in their own communities were made aware of the statistics, the real challenge was not convincing them to get involved but finding messaging on the issue with which they were comfortable.

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"One of the most commonly cited barriers was that people felt that talking about human sexuality in faith-based settings could be incongruent with some of their training," she said. "A lot of people thought church may not be the most suitable venue to talk about not just homosexuality, but human sexuality." However, not all of the pastors felt that way, she said. The key was helping the pastors find messaging that worked for them.