On the eve of the 19th International AIDS Conference to be held in the District on July 22-27, Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein asked several local pastors and other experts to discuss the black church’s handling of HIV/AIDS.
The Rev. Anthony Evans
is president of the D.C.-based National Black Church Initiative, a network of 34,000 U.S. churches.
Evans said the black church “let the 1980s pass us by” in dealing with HIV/AIDS but has awakened. Two years ago, his group declared a national health emergency in the black church and is about to unveil a controversial recommendation for pastors to disseminate to their flocks: “We want everyone to take a year off of sex and deal with who they are.”
Parishioners should use the year of celibacy to focus on their sexuality and relationships with friends, family and God, Evans said. He wants people to get tested and confront the results.
“If you are positive, let your partner know,” Evans said. “If you can’t, let your pastor know. Or friends. Someone has to know who you really are. You can’t be a mystery anymore. AIDS has uncovered the mysteries of who we are.”
Talking about AIDS, he said, “goes against historic and deep-seated folkways and norms of the black community, that you are to be silent about your personal life. But the church is now giving you permission to open up and be realistic about your own behavior.”
But Evans said the black church is being criticized unfairly on the issue.
“There is no question one of the weapons the gay community has against the black church and its opposition to same-sex marriage is saying we haven’t done anything to solve the question of AIDS. On one hand, they’re absolutely right. But I think from 1990 until today, the black church has moved mountains.”
“I am constantly apologizing on behalf of the church because we should have known better,” he said, but the federal government is “still not willing to extend the necessary resources to eliminate AIDS in our lifetime.”
“There is a general perception of tolerating the misery and suffering of black people. The only thing we lack is sufficient funding.”
The problem persists unabated among blacks largely because of ignorance, not willful behavior, so funding public education targeted at hard-to-reach communities is essential, he said.
“Most of our folks [who have HIV or AIDS] are IV drug users, they’re poor, they didn’t get through 12th grade and the literature is produced at a level they can’t understand. They don’t understand how their own body functions.”