Growing up in a devout, black Baptist family, Paul Grant was taught a core strategy for coping with life’s woes: Give it up to God.
Or: Let go, let God. Or: Wait on the Lord. Or other expressions common enough to be near-doctrine in conservative religious communities that include the black American church. It all boils down to the idea that if you are faithful, and pray intently, God will take care of things.
But for Grant, a 37-year-old D.C. filmmaker, the mantra led to grief. His father, the Rev. Freddie Grant, a truck driver and church leader in their small South Carolina town, suffered from heart disease, and his mother, Emma Jean, a secretary, developed multiple sclerosis. But they refused to take their medications regularly or to do other things to guard their health, believing that prayer would heal all.
They both died before he was 25.
Grant’s struggle to reconcile faith and personal responsibility went on to define him professionally and personally. He became focused on exploring what he calls the “African American Christian pathos around chronic illness, sin and sickness.” He honed in on HIV/AIDS, a disease at epidemic levels among black Americans, although, as a topic, it remains largely absent from many African American churches.
Grant became a communications consultant: He advised government health officials on black faith communities, and he counseled black organizations — including the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus — on matters of health. He zeroed in on how African Americans think about God and about their role in staying healthy.
And this week, his personal journey culminated in a packed screening room at the International AIDS Conference, where on Thursday he premiered a documentary, “The Gospel of Healing,” about HIV/AIDS and the black church. The film, which took six years to make, looks at black churches on the East Coast that have plunged into the HIV fight and at the forces that have kept some other churches away from the front lines. In Washington, 75 percent of people living with HIV are black.
In the film, he highlights churches that are progressive in their approach to HIV/AIDS, but he doesn’t disagree with the common criticism that black churches have hesitated to engage the problem because of discomfort with the subjects of homosexuality and drug use.
He respectfully portrays black leaders who call institutional black religion the axis around which the black American world turns. But the film also asks whether the influence of the black church has waned as society has become more integrated and black Americans, in some cases, have explored other faith communities.
In the film, and in casual conversations, Grant’s observations are often posed as questions.
“Let go, let God — I heard that my whole life. To what extent is that an excuse?” he said in an interview at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center the day before the screening. Grant asked: To what extent should we emphasize working for change rather than just praying for it? “Does that make me a conservative?” he wondered.
Grant maintains that in dealing with HIV/AIDS, the black church tends to rely too much on government and other outside powers when it could do more on its own. He sees a legacy of slavery at work — people trying to make sense of things they couldn’t control.
The ceaseless questioning extends to his own faith. Raised in a home where relatives sang hymns in the living room on Saturday night to prepare for Sunday worship, Grant calls Christianity “the myth I choose to believe in.” He doesn’t have his father’s literal belief in Scripture, but he sees powerful evidence of the divine in churches driven to do HIV work. He reads the Bible, but he is not a regular churchgoer.
“I’m still trying,” he said, “to make sense of: Why are we the sickest? And look at the housing debacle. Why are we always getting the rug pulled out? Where is my protector? That’s where I am. ”
Before the screening Thursday, Grant told the crowd his family story.
“My father would say: ‘Son, the Grant family is going to fly away. We’re never going to taste death because we have a strong faith.’ ” They would all be spared in the Rapture, Freddie Grant would tell his seven children. One of Grant’s brothers told him not to worry about voting, or college, because of the impending end of the world. This sort of thinking “caused irreparable harm” to their parents’ health, Paul Grant said.
Churches are filled with talk of a God “who can do anything,” Grant said in the interview. “For African Americans, it's the difference between what we know and what we believe.” In hymns, Jesus does work similar to that done by a doctor, but should that cause African Americans to have less faith in what doctors can achieve? Can believers come to understand the science of disease well enough to make use of modern medicine to protect their health while still trusting in God?
“All our lives are in the balance,” Grant said.
How knowledge and faith can co-exist is a personal matter for Grant. He said his path became clear years ago when he was interviewing an HIV-positive gospel singer for an earlier documentary.
“She said, ‘Healing doesn't mean God healing my illness. It means God giving me the strength to deal,’ ” Grant said in the interview. “With that one sentence, everything in my life came into that moment.”