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An Act of Faith: The Black Church & HIV

The church is supposed to serve as a safe haven for those who fall short of God’s glory. But for many, especially those living with HIV, it is a place of rejection, judgment and ridicule.

Rev. William Francis is a lead servant with Atlanta Faith in Action. When he was diagnosed with HIV in 2009, the first place he went to was his church.

“I just broke down in front of the alter and I’m not talking just tears coming down,” he recalled. “I literally fell to the alter. I was told that when the bishop came out of the office to start service that he literally looked down on me and signaled for the two ministers to take me to the prayer room.”

It took Rev. Francis a little less than two hours to confess that he had HIV and as soon as he did, he regretted it.

“I think what hurt me the most was that we were a laying on of the hand type of church. You got cancer? We gonna rub it out with this oil. You know whatever it was we gonna get it out. But the prayer went from here [touches body] to here [far away from me]. It was as if by touching me, they were going to get HIV and that hurt.”

Rev. Francis found out he had HIV during a routine testing for a job. He didn’t expect to get the results that he did, but his diagnosis provided him a new opportunity to serve the community.

And that’s exactly what he plans on doing under the NAACP’s new initiative, “The Black Church and HIV.” The faith-based measure seeks to enlists faith leaders as change agents in the fight against HIV.

I was privileged to learn about the initiative in September at the 20th Annual United States Conference on AIDS where I met Rev. Francis. He, along with Dr. Marjorie Innocent, senior director of health programs for the NAACP, appeared on a panel about the church’s role in the HIV epidemic.

“What the ‘Black Church and HIV’ social justice imperative actually seeks to do is to elevate the realities and social realities behind what HIV is and what it actually is doing to the African-American community in particular,” said Dr. Innocent. “And this is actually a message that was important for us not only because it’s a message that we recognize we want to share with the faith community, but it was also a way in which within the NAACP itself, we were able to coalesce around addressing the issue.”

Blacks bear the great burden of HIV in America more than any other racial or ethnic group. We represent just 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 43% of all people living with HIV. African-Americans also represent nearly half of all new HIV infections.

To address this decades long epidemic, “The Black Church and HIV” initiative was established.

“Some of us understood it a long time ago,” said Dr. Innocent. “For the folks working in health, it was already clear. There was no selling point for us.”

So how can faith leaders impact the HIV epidemic, especially when such blatant forms of discrimination—especially regarding homosexuality—exist?

“There are a lot of congregations in our communities that don’t have that attitude,” Rev. Christopher Hamlin, who also spoke on the panel said. “There are congregations who are open and welcoming. I think when there’s a mass exodus of a congregation, pastors are going to start to really look at what they’re doing and they will change.”

While the initiative is a step in the right direction, Rev. Francis acknowledges that there’s still more work to be done.

“I’m a pastor, I have HIV and I’m heterosexual. I understand the pain, I understand the hurt,” he said. “When I said ‘I’m HIV positive,’ immediately my church thought I was gay and went on a rant of condemned living. Folks have literally said that you will go to hell if you have AIDS. So I think the dialogue has to be had, but I think the question is how do we have that dialogue?”

For more on the NAACP’s “Black Church and HIV initiative, visit theblackchurchandhiv.org.