While the black church continues to wield tremendous influence in the African American community, black faith leaders are not exerting their full power in helping fight the AIDS crisis in our community.

The stakes are high: Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for about 44 percent of new infections. One in 16 black men and one in 32 black women will be infected by HIV at some point in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Pastor Delman Coates, a preacher at Mount Ennon Baptist Church, is among a small minority of black ministers in Maryland who have endorsed gay rights. He preaches during a Sunday service. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The church must not allow the ideal of moral perfection to trump the reality of the world in which we live. Clergy do Christ and humanity a disservice by sitting on the sidelines. It is the duty of the church to remember that Christ didn’t make an idol out of his own ideals. Christ was the ultimate realist and the church is commanded to follow his faithful lead.

As the 19th International AIDS Conference comes to Washington, D.C., this is the perfect time to raise awareness and challenge church leaders to break the silence. Church leaders’ understanding of the virus is often rooted in myths and misinformation, which prompted the NAACP to release a 66-page study entitled “The Black Church and HIV: The Social Imperative” earlier this month. This organization recognizes the church’s silence is a matter of life and death.

Indeed, the black church’s history of silence on HIV/AIDS is an extension of its general silence on sexuality among both gays and heterosexuals. Biblical mandates for holiness and purity have led many clergy to believe that human sexuality should not be a theological priority in the pulpit. The sermons that grapple with sex often instruct congregants to be abstinent prior to marriage. And they often assume their parishioners will be faithful in their marriages.

This practice of avoidance is in complete contradiction to the Bible’s teachings about Christ. Countless biblical narratives tell of an incarnate God who met people where they were before he uttered a word about where he wanted them to be. When he did speak, he spoke in parables to ensure that his teachings resonated with people’s lived experiences.

Christ went from city to city educating the masses and performing acts of physical healing. He cleansed lepers, gave sight to the blind, performed exorcisms, healed paralytics and cured a woman with an “issue of blood.” His commitment to transformation was rooted in an understanding that he had to first meet people’s most immediate needs in order to elevate them to a higher spiritual ground.

Any ministry that does not reflect this image of Christ is misrepresenting him.

LaVerne Harley, director of outreach at Community of Hope A.M.E. Church in Temple Hills, believes purging the stigma associated with AIDS is essential to minimizing its spread.

“We try to ignore it and go around it. We do all kinds of things except dealing with it,” Harley said in an interview. “At Community of Hope, we deal with sexual health in the same ways we approach any other health matter. We promote healthy lifestyles across the board. We talk about [HIV] as the norm — as a part of everyday life. Of course abstinence is the best way, but not everyone is going to do that so we seek a holistic approach.”

The church maintains a comprehensive HIV strategy that includes prevention, education, testing and contraception distribution. Age-specific literature on sexual health is readily available along with discussion about drug abuse and trainings that empower their congregants to be peer educators.

Some of the church’s more unconventional strategies include having its pastor, Tony Lee, and ministerial staff get tested from the pulpit four times a year, as well as having condoms available to its congregants. This tactic has not come without criticism, as religious conservatives argue that condom distribution contradicts the standard that single Christians remain abstinent.

Churches have the challenge of treading carefully in sexual health education, as they don’t want to condone the very behavior that the Bible labels as sinful. This is the bind that pastors and their staffs find themselves in when it comes to addressing matters of human sexuality.

When asked how clergy can reconcile this tension, Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action, a faith-based social service agency working with the poor in New Haven, Conn., stresses the importance of harm reduction. She says, “In any pastoral care situation, intervention should work with the individual at the level you find them and hope they would be better off as a result of your interaction, conversation and prayer. The hope is that these things would lead to some sort of action on their part and ultimately make them better off.”

Both Harley and Grubbs emphasize the need to equip people to make good decisions that reflect self-love and ensure self protection. Mainline denominations and white clergy are equally struggling to do this, but there’s more at stake in the black community.

Not all churches will be as vigorous and bold in their efforts to combat the disease. Different strategies and theological tools will be used. But what matters most is that religious leaders understand that fighting this crisis is a Christian imperative — an absolute nonnegotiable in the work of ministry.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter: @RahielT.

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