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.
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.