Epidemic Faith

Historically, African-American church leaders have provided guidance and support in our struggle for civil rights. They lead the songs of nonviolent protest for equality in education, housing, and employment. As Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker once wrote, "If you listen to what African-Americans are singing religiously, it is a clue to what is happening to them sociologically."

Why was the church silent for so long about HIV/AIDS? Early in the epidemic, there were so many mixed messages. HIV was first depicted primarily as a disease of white gay men. Then we were told Haitian immigrants, sex industry workers (prostitutes), and the African green monkey were the cause for the spread of the disease. What response could the African-American church provide, when historically we people of color have been blamed for the social ills of America?

Addressing HIV/AIDS meant discussing man-to-man sex, IV drug-using behavior, and issues seen as problems of the world beyond of the walls of the church. Consequently, persons living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) were blamed for their illness, feared, and stigmatized. Their families were embarrassed and ashamed. Although this insidious virus was taking a devastating toll, a wall of shame and denial was erected between the African-American community and the church.

Faced with little or no information and support network, African-American gay and heterosexual HIV/AIDS activists had to learn from white gay activists how to discuss the virus and educate our community. When many churches did not respond with compassion, PWAs created their own support systems and even churches. The issue of loss in our community became so great that family members began to knock down the walls of shame to seek guidance and prayer from church leaders.

NO LONGER COULD the church remain silent about HIV/AIDS. Although not fast enough for many, it began to provide prayer, prevention education, and direct services to PWAs and their families. In breaking the silence, family members and PWAs found a voice and play a prominent role in these faith-based initiatives. The AIDS Task Force of Shiloh Baptist Church is currently led by Lori E. Hunter, whose brother Roy Hunter was an activist in Richmond, Virginia, until his death in 1994 from an AIDS-related illness. Among the churches that responded in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area were Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, Metropolitan Baptist Church, St. Augustine Catholic Church, St. Gabriel Catholic Church, Shiloh Baptist Church, and Baltimore's New Psalmist Baptist Church.

In a move that demonstrates a caring response to AIDS, the Progressive National Baptist Convention appointed Dr. Wallace Charles Smith of Shiloh Baptist Church to implement a national program to provide HIV/AIDS education for its member churches. The Balm in Gilead Inc., founded by Rev. Pernessa Seele in New York, provides training for church leaders and produces liturgical literature. The organization's Black Church National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, held the first week of March, mobilizes the African-American church to do what it does best—pray. The Balm in Gilead has partnered with the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to bring healing and the message of compassion into the church. Many churches have created panels remembering family and friends who died of AIDS.

The panel created by the Shiloh Baptist Church AIDS Task Force hangs in the exhibit Speak to My Heart: Communities of Faith and Contemporary African-American Life at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The panel reads "In Loving Memory of Those Who Have Died of AIDS." It depicts a white dove carrying the AIDS ribbon and the sun shining down upon the church sending rays of hope to those still living with HIV/AIDS.

As the millennium draws to a close, the African-American church should continue to examine its response to HIV/AIDS. Perhaps, as AIDS activist Greg Hutchins believes, a holistic approach is needed that addresses HIV/AIDS prevention along with drug abuse and other health issues disproportionately impacting African-Americans. To survive, our community must be nutritionally and spiritually fed. The church to a greater extent must provide support groups, educational workshops, counseling sessions, food banks, visitation ministries, and prayer bands. Most important, we must sing songs of healing and encouragement to our brothers and sisters with HIV/AIDS, for there is indeed a Balm in Gilead. —Marion Brown and Lori Hunter

MARION BROWN is executive director of Sojourners Neighborhood Center and former director of the HIV Counseling and Testing Program of Washington, D.C.'s Whitman-Walker Clinic. LORI HUNTER is outreach coordinator of the AIDS Task Force of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.


For additional reading, check these out:

  • Whitman-Walker Clinic - Provides information about HIV and AIDS and other gay and lesbian health issues
  • Sexual Promiscuity in Africa Called "Violence". By Molly Marsh. Sojourners March-April 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 16). Between the Lines.
  • When Poverty is the Landscape. An inner-city physician's honest struggles. By Joyce Hollyday. Sojourners July-August 1999 (Vol. 27, No. 4, p. 11). July-August 1995 (Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 59-60). Reviews. Hilfiker was well aware that as a white, Yale-educated doctor, he could never fully comprehend the powerlessness and chaos that reigned in the lives of those he served.

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