Dr. Jeanette Deas Calhoun, Ph.D., executive director at Tyler AIDS Services, is taking her HIV awareness campaign to the church.
She's passing out about 30 guides to pastors in the Tyler area to help them transition to an HIV-compassionate ministry.
She's targeting black churches because black people are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. In fact, African-Americans comprised 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It's important to get churches on board, she said, because historically, when the church gets involved, things start to happen.
The guides developed by an Austin-based minister equip pastors with tools to make it easier and more comfortable for congregants to share their HIV status with families and partners, get counseling, find resources and receive compassion.
Modules targeting the mind, body and spirit include assessment activities, ways to reinforce good decision making and the function of HIV community organizations.
The Revs. Darryl Bowdre, of South Central Church of Christ, and Ralph Caraway, of St. Louis Baptist Church, have been vocal about HIV/AIDS in their respective churches and realize the role churches can have in thwarting the disease. They recently met with Dr. Calhoun to discuss her goal of involving the church community.
In recent years, Caraway has hosted numerous health fairs and summits that educated participants on HIV and where to find additional resources.
The pastors both foresee that all churches will evolve and become proactive about the disease.
Caraway, a self-described “free spirit,” said whether church leaders like it, they have no choice but to act — or else they will have to react.
“A change is taking place now that HIV is something that we can no longer hide from,” he said. “It's something that we have to address … Whether we like to address it or not, it's a real issue. It's a life and death issue. If we're going to be about saving souls, we also have to be about saving lives. We can't afford to hide from something. AIDS is not invisible.”
The men say it's important to view HIV/AIDS as a health issue because it's a reality that people are living with. They also recognize that “everything is connected.”
They say as clergymen, they also have to approach the education of their congregations about the disease from spiritual, social and economic perspectives.
ERASING RELIGIOUS-BASED STIGMA
“There are people that are our clients who go to church who are very involved in various ministries and they're flourishing,” she said. “There are other people who do not go to church because they believe, on some occasion, that they were singled out from the pulpit. Then you have other people who are just dealing with depression and they're immobilized.”
But, as the pastors explained, it is possible to adhere to religious beliefs and address HIV contracted through sexual contact without being judgmental.
“For a lot of us that don't have the disease, it's not because we didn't take risks,” Caraway said. “I'm not going to condemn a person because they made a bad choice. I've made too many — still capable … My thing is about helping.”
The pastors say while certain behaviors have not changed since the beginning of time, the consequences have.
“When I was growing up, the worst that could happen to you is you got a disease or the girl got pregnant,” Bowdre said. “Now, sex'll kill you. It wasn't always like that.”
They both preach abstinence but understand that in reality, people will participate in premarital or risky sexual behavior.
“As a church, we're not trying to take away your choice,” Caraway said. “We have Biblical guidelines that we go by. People are going to make choices, regardless of what you present.”
Carol Henson a nurse and board member of MPowering Women Over HIV Regional Coalition — an 11-member group designed to stop the spread of HIV in black women — also met with the pastors. She said when people are diagnosed with HIV, their faith may be shaken. It's a time when they need the love of the church the most, not condemnation.
“It affects them spiritually once they've been diagnosed,” she said. “People tend to question, 'Is this punishment for what I did?'”
Before other church leaders can take the first steps, they have to be educated about the disease and its effect on families first. Caraway said that means getting rid of the myths, such as believing only homosexual individuals can contract the disease or people can get it through touching.
Bowdre said churches can develop a support ministry that addresses those needs of people being impacted by HIV.
“You still have a lot of the little churches with older pastors who may not be as equipped to deal with the subject, because it still is taboo, to an extent,” Ms. Henson said. “I'm just hoping through this they get the tools they need to be able to talk to their members about it.”
Caraway added, “I think there are a lot of pastors that probably want to talk about it and somehow don't have the tools to do that.”
The fight to get more churches involved may be a cultural phenomenon. Obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure are other issues black churches have been slow to address, the pastors said.
“Those were subjects that were not discussed in the church because once upon a time we didn't make the connections between everything,” Bowdre said.
“In the black community, traditionally, and in the black church, there were things that you stayed away from. That's changed, but the taboo is still there. It's not just this subject, but there are many other subjects in the black community that we are slow to respond to; not that the community ignores it, but with some other things that that church deals with I guess they put it on the backburner and like everybody else, don't view it as their job to attack, especially when it's a social problem.”
Once the HIV ministry transition guides have been distributed, Dr. Calhoun wants to continue the conversations with local clergymen on a local religious-based radio show.
“It's been extremely difficult getting a dialogue going and keeping it going,” she said. “That's key to addressing this.”