(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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.