How Black Churches Can Fight HIV/AIDS

Focusing on testing and social justice instead of sexual behavior is a positive strategy churches should use.

Posted: 05/22/2012 12:16 PM EDT

Since the beginning, African-American churches have been the most power social institution in our communities. It's always been more than just a place for Black folks to worship — people learned how to read there and political movements started there.

But with religion comes serious tensions around topics such as sex, sexual orientation and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black America. Many have charged numerous churches around the U.S. with homophobia, stigma and being all too silent about AIDS over the years. And while these acts of intolerance do happen, that doesn’t mean that all churches are mimicking or condone that behavior. Most important, it doesn't mean that Black churches cannot and do not have HIV/AIDS within their congregations.  

A new report may have found some of the answers. Researchers from Brown University interviewed and surveyed 38 Black influential church leaders in Philadelphia to see how their churches are engaging HIV/AIDS awareness work in the pulpit, barriers to getting congregations on board and the positive responses feedback received.

Dr. Amy Nunn, MS, ScD, lead author on this report, told BET.com, "There has always been this great cynicism in engaging Black clergy, and this report shows that it isn’t impossible, if we do it in a way that resonates with those faith leaders and meets them where they are."

Nunn and her team have seen success using this method. According to a 2010 Brown University press statement, Nunn worked with prominent pastors, local media and Philadelphia's mayor to create the city's first faith-based initiative to destigmatize HIV testing across the city. This year, Nunn also plans to work with dozens of churches to launch an HIV prevention campaign that includes door-to-door testing areas in Philadelphia with high infection rates.

The interviews revealed some serious concerns that faith leaders have had when doing AIDS outreach in their churches. While some reported that their congregations found sermons about HIV/AIDS to be inspiring and progressive, other congregations were angered. Pastors were worried that people would leave the church, and tithes would be lost. Other concerns were the difficulties of talking about HIV and still preaching abstinence.

But what they found that worked for churches was instead of focusing HIV/AIDS on sex and sexual behavior, the messages that seemed to resonate were ones that were about HIV testing, treatment and social justice, a strategy that doesn't contradict their religious teachings. And testing and treatment are very important given that the more people living with HIV/AIDS who are on treatment are less likely to transmit the disease to someone else.

Another key finding is the benefit of having an influential church leader be first to sign on to an HIV/AIDS campaign or do the work in his or her church first, which may mean other churches will follow.

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