The Black Church and the Response to HIV/AIDS: Where Faith Meets Advocacy

The Black Church and the Response to HIV/AIDS: Where Faith Meets Advocacy

by July 29, 2016

It’s no secret that HIV/AIDS advocates and the Black church have not always seen eye to eye. However, a new faith-based initiative could create more collaboration between those groups than ever before.

The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and UNAIDS have launched a $4 million two-year initiative to strengthen the capacity of faith-based organizations to respond to HIV/AIDS. The effort will focus on five areas: collecting, analyzing and disseminating data; strengthening leadership and advocacy; addressing stigma and discrimination; improving the provision of HIV-related services; and increasing demand for HIV services and ensuring that people remain in care.

“Faith has played a critical role in the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” says Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. “This initiative helps us expand the engagement of faith-based organizations, including those in the U.S., in efforts that are aligned with the UNAIDS and various efforts to end the pandemic.”

Cultivating Better Relationships

The faith-based initiative comes in response to 10 recommendations made by more than 50 faith leaders in April 2015. The United Nations General Assembly, UNAIDS, PEPFAR and Emory University in September 2015 released a report titled, “Building on Firm Foundations” (pdf) that is based on those recommendations.

Other events have highlighted the faith community’s desire to step up its involvement in the fight against HIV/AIDS. An interfaith service held in June 2016 led to a call to action to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Following the service was a U.N. High Level Meeting on Ending AIDS, in which world leaders adopted a Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS. Their intention: to end the epidemic by 2030.

Religious leaders have also voiced support to PLWHA and members of the LGBT community, who have been disproportionately affected by the disease. For example, in June, Pope Francis said that Christians should apologize to the gay community for the way Christians had treated them in the past.

In February, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, also adopted an accepting posture about the LGBT community. In a letter describing a resolution of the Anglican Synod of Bishops, an advisory body to the pope, Makgoba wrote, “We reaffirm our assurance to them that they are loved by God and that all baptised‚ believing and faithful persons‚ regardless of sexual orientation‚ are full members of the Body of Christ.”

Faith communities across the world have the responsibility to represent those who are affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly those whose voices aren’t being heard, says Manoj Kurian, M.D., coordinator of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. “As communities of faith, we are powerful. It is important that we utilize this influence to do the right thing, and the right thing is to stand with people who are marginalized.”

Getting the Black Community Involved

Not only does the initiative aim to get clergy involved, but it also wants all members of faith-based institutions to take part. “When we think of faith-based institutions, we, too, often think only of the role of clergy, but laypeople have an enormous role to play in faith institutions,” says Jesse Milan Jr., current chair emeritus and past board chair of the Black AIDS Institute and former president of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition. “When it comes to HIV/AIDS, we cannot rely exclusively on clergy to lead; we need laypeople to lead as well.”

Milan is working closely with the Rev. Edwin C. Sanders II, founder of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tenn., and board member of the Black AIDS Institute, to bring Black faith-based institutions on board. One way the duo will do so is by sharing their own personal faith journeys as people of faith in the HIV/AIDS arena, Milan says. “I think the world does not have enough examples of both clergy and laypeople sharing. It’s when our stories are shared that people feel not only touched but inspired about how their own stories can change.”

The effort gives Black faith-based institutions the opportunity to lay out their vision for defeating HIV/AIDS, while also showing that the spiritual community and HIV/AIDS activists are working for the same greater good.

“In this world where we are constantly struggling with the stigma of HIV and the disparities for the Black community, the more that we can embrace HIV/AIDS as a justice issue rooted in our personal faith mission, the stronger our efforts can be to break down the stigma and to inspire greater justice in our communities and the world,” Milan says.

Several significant activities took place at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, around faith. Among them were the Interfaith Pre-Conference on July 16-17, and the Black AIDS Institute’s Faith Webinar and Faith Breakfast Update on July 20.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.

PHOTO CAPTION: Reverend Edwin Sanders


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