Faith community focuses on AIDS outreach


The rev. Dana Toliver, left, chats March 6 with Juanita King, who is living with AIDS. Toliver holds her weekly group counseing meeting with about 10 people living with HIV and AIDS. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

For more than 20 years, Juanita King sold her body to pay for crack cocaine. She’s done with all that now, but she struggles with a disease once considered a death sentence, and with her children, who aren’t ready to forgive.

“My life has been kind of hard,” said the 45-year-old mother of five, who has AIDS. “You do have a lot of people who push you away. . . . The stigma is real big. You have to speak life to yourself.”

But after years in which some religious leaders downplayed the disease’s devastation in the African American community, more are speaking out about the toll of AIDS on black women, the need to help those who are ill — and the hope expressed recently by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that an “AIDS-free generation” may be on the horizon.

“We are bringing together faith leaders and people living with HIV/AIDS . . . to have a serious dialogue on how we end the epidemic,” said Pernessa C. Seele, founder of the Balm in Gilead Ministry, a nonprofit group that recently sponsored a program at Howard University in an effort to bridge the gap between churches and people living with HIV.

About 30 years after news of the epidemic surfaced, “We have the science [and] we have incredible treatment interventions,” Seele said. “But unless we have the faith community and people living with HIV working together, the science will remain on the shelf.’’

Marsha Martin, director of the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services in the District, noted at the conference that African Americans account for more than half of the nation’s new HIV infections, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.

“The rate of new infections for black men is 61 / 2 times higher than white men, and the rate of new infections among black women is 15 times higher than white women,” she said. And the District has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the nation, with 3.2 percent of the city’s adults and adolescents testing positive for HIV, according to the health department.

Johari Abdul-Malik, imam of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, who was also at the conference, said some religious leaders wasted time preaching that AIDS is a “white man’s disease.” In truth, he said, “we wasted a lot of time pointing the finger . . . and we lost a lot of people.”

At a time when the District and Maryland have passed same-sex marriage legislation, conversations and attitudes about sex aren’t as hushed as they were a few years ago.

“More churches are open to addressing the issue and talking about it,” said the Rev. Frank Tucker, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Washington, which started an HIV education program in the 1990s. “I think we’re moving ahead.”

But there is work to be done in erasing the stigma.

Inside a comfortable house in a historic district in Anacostia, King and several others with HIV/AIDS met Tuesday with their counselors at a weekly meeting of the Akoma Project, a counseling and referral program started 13 years ago by Union Temple Baptist Church.

King worried about one of her daughters: “I don’t want to be a friend; I want to be a responsible mother,” she told counselor Daouda Lawrence. Downstairs, Ruth “Cookie” Twitty, a grandmother of seven, told the Rev. Dana Mitchell Tolliver that her daughter had been told to stay away from Twitty because she has HIV.

“This is not a ministry for one or two people. It is a ministry for the whole church and the community to take part in,’’ said Tolliver, the director of Akoma, which is a West African word for heart or patience.

At Union Temple Baptist, condoms are available in the foyer, pastor Willie Wilson said. “The fact of the matter is, people are having sex. Would you rather them to die or would you rather them have a means by which they might live?”

Steven Bailous, executive vice president of the National Association of People Living With AIDS, said the outlook for easing the disease’s many cruelties has improved significantly.

“We have learned that it didn’t have to be this way,” he said.

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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