Last week’s preacher scandal has enough intrigue and heat for a ShondaLand soap or reality show. But once you get past all the drama in the Rev. Juan D. McFarland’s Montgomery, Ala., church, it’s clear that many of us still have some important lessons to learn about sexually transmitted diseases.
If you’re not already up to speed, here’s what happened: Last week McFarland announced to his congregants at the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church that not only did he have AIDS—which his flock accepted with compassion—but he’d also used illegal drugs, misappropriated funds and committed adultery with multiple church members, sometimes in the church building. And, apparently, the scandal was enough not only for church leaders to vote McFarland out but also to send at least one sister who’d been connected to him running to her doctor—suggesting that the two had engaged in unprotected sex.
The whole situation is a reminder that none of us can tell who has HIV/AIDS just by how a person looks, his or her age, or the prestige of the person’s position in the community.
So to move beyond finger-wagging about McFarland, it’s worth reviewing what we can learn from this unfortunate situation.
1. Black America can’t be complacent.
Our community is disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and its epicenter has shifted from urban centers in the North to Southern cities and rural areas. It’s important that we know not only our own status but also our sexual partners’, and use condoms correctly. Many people should get HIV tested at least once a year.
2. Let’s offer compassion, not condemnation.
From a public health standpoint, both the pastor and his partners need our support. It’s great that McFarland’s flock accepted his announcement with love. But the choices that he—and they—made will create a regional ripple effect. We need to help anyone infected or affected.
3. Disclosure is difficult but necessary.
McFarland definitely should have told all of his partners that he has HIV/AIDS, starting with his wife. He also should have used protection—and maybe he did. But coming out as HIV-positive can be extremely difficult. People fear being stigmatized, losing loved ones, getting fired, being discriminated against, outed and so on. So we shouldn’t assume that our sexual partner is HIV-negative, as at least one of the pastor’s partners perhaps did. If any of them tests positive, they’ll get a taste of disclosure’s dilemmas.
4. We need to destigmatize HIV and other STDs.
Fear of being stigmatized for having HIV—or being presumed to be, or actually being, gay or bisexual—can keep people from getting tested, returning to receive their results, seeing an AIDS specialist if they test positive, picking up their medication, taking it as prescribed and telling their partners. If we want people to let us know that they’re positive, our community must create an accepting climate for those conversations.
5. Getting treatment quickly—and staying on it—will prolong life.
The fact that he progressed from HIV to AIDS in merely five years suggests that McFarland wasn’t taking HIV-fighting, or antiretroviral, medications. Not being on meds made him sicker and more infectious. People who get diagnosed soon after getting HIV, take ARVs and stay on treatment are likely to live a normal life span and die of something other than AIDS.
And because antiretrovirals kill HIV, the person taking them becomes less infectious. Indeed, people on HIV-fighting treatment are up to 96 percent less likely to spread the virus to their partners than untreated people.
6. Anti-HIV meds can also keep those who are HIV-negative from getting the virus.
If people who are at high risk of acquiring HIV take a daily dose of the ARV Truvada correctly—a process called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP—they can reduce their risk of acquiring the virus by as much as 92 percent. Click here to learn more about PrEP and who is an ideal candidate, particularly if you are a black man who has sex with men, a group whose HIV rate is increasing rapidly.
7. Don’t criminally prosecute the pastor (or his partners).
In many states, exposing another person to HIV is a crime. Apparently it’s a misdemeanor in Alabama. Criminalizing HIV increases the very stigma we must eliminate. (Go here to watch a video about it.) Not surprisingly, such laws are being used to prosecute black men. Here’s how you can help stop criminalization.
Let’s be clear: There’s no question that McFarland should have disclosed his HIV-positive status to his partners—his failure to do so is on him. But this situation appears to have involved consensual unprotected sex, and 30-plus years into the AIDS epidemic, and with an STD epidemic raging in black communities—chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis rates are all off the chain—let’s remind ourselves that, ultimately, no one can fully protect us from STDs except ourselves, even if it requires stepping outside our behavioral and conversational comfort zones.
Philadelphia-based writer Hilary Beard is co-author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, both of which have won an NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.