This weekend, black Christian leaders around the country will be using their Sunday sermons to address a topic many consider to be a “stigma” in African-American communities: HIV and AIDS.
Ahead of its annual convention, the NAACP has enlisted more than 100 pastors to preach about HIV’s disparate impact on black Americans for a “Day of Unity” ― hoping to raise awareness among some of those most affected by the disease.
“Historically, the Black Church has been instrumental in driving change on social justice issues, including voting rights and employment opportunities,” said Dr. Marjorie Innocent, senior director of health programs for the NAACP, in an email to The Huffington Post. “We saw an opportunity, given this history of action, to bring this tradition of social justice advocacy to the HIV epidemic.”
African-Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for about 44 percent of HIV diagnoses, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Black gay and bisexual men account for the largest number of HIV diagnoses. In 2013, African-Americans accounted for 54 percent of total deaths attributed to HIV or AIDS that year.
The Rev. William Francis, who serves as lead pastor of Atlanta Faith in Action and is participating in the Day of Unity, said his congregation is located in the middle of an area with one of the highest rates of HIV in the country. For Francis, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2009, it’s important for his church to emphasize that “there is no stigma or judgment attached to it.”
“We recommend routine testing for HIV just as commonly as we recommend screenings and care for high blood pressure, cancer or diabetes,” Francis told HuffPost.
In 2010, the NAACP national health department, in partnership with biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, convened faith leaders in cities where African-Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. Their aim was to facilitate roundtable discussions to identify why community leaders weren’t talking about the disease and develop strategies to overcome any barriers to HIV awareness.
In 2013 they made a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action to continue the initiative and encourage increasingly more faith leaders to educate their congregations about HIV prevention and treatment. Their resulting initiative is called The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative.
The Rev. Stanley Stephens, who serves as president of West Side Pastors’ Coalition for AIDS in Chicago, also plans to participate in the Day of Unity. It is the responsibility of faith leaders, he said, to “provide pastoral care that is compassionate and non-judgmental to individuals living with HIV/AIDS.”
“Faith leaders need to increase their own awareness and knowledge about HIV through seminars and educational resources,” he told HuffPost in an email. “They also need to become more outspoken regarding the need for HIV/AIDS awareness in their congregation and community.”