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Black churches
work to increase HIV awareness

Black churches
work to increase HIV awareness

The Reverend Carey G. Anderson wants his congregation to realize not only that HIV disproportionately affects the lives of black Americans but to respond to that crisis. Anderson, senior pastor of Seattle's First African Methodist Episcopal Church, hopes that his church can not only help African-Americans avoid HIV infection but also support those in the larger community who live with HIV and AIDS. "The cry must be heralded not only from the pulpit but also from the hands," he said.

Anderson's church, which hosted an HIV testing day June 12 and plans awareness workshops, is part of an increasing number of black churches nationwide that are becoming more active in HIV education and support work in their communities, AIDS activists say.

Teresa Holmes is a spokeswoman for the Balm in Gilead, a New York City-based organization that tries to combat the epidemic by mobilizing black churches. As part of National HIV testing day Monday, the Balm in Gilead gave churches information on how to encourage black people to get tested. During the past few days, churches nationwide conducted HIV testings and rallies, Holmes said.

More than a million Americans are believed to be living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And an estimated 25% of those with HIV don't even know they have it. The latest CDC estimates indicate that blacks account for 47% of HIV cases, and gay and bisexual men make up 45% of those living with the virus, the health agency believes.

When the disease first emerged 20 years ago, many black church leaders considered it mainly a problem of gay white men, Holmes said. Now "it's infecting and affecting people of color," Anderson said.

With that in mind, some black churches like Anderson's have begun to address the issue as they have done with racism, financial literacy, or diabetes. The level of involvement varies from church to church. But for Anderson, whose sister's diagnosis with HIV in 1985 propelled him into AIDS advocacy work, educating his congregation about the virus and providing support for those living with it is just part of his church's larger mission. Compassion is key, he said.

His church has an AIDS Care Team program, a wing of the nonprofit Multifaith Works in Seattle, which partners community members living with HIV with volunteers who provide support. Anderson also hopes to dispel myths his congregation might have about the disease and instead provide basic information. That includes advocating abstinence and encouraging safer sex for people who are already sexually active, Anderson said.

DeMaurice Moses, health care coordinator at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, acknowledges the need to address the fact that people of color are disproportionately affected. But he worries about stereotyping. As was the case with gay men when the disease first emerged, people now too often associate the disease with black Americans and Africans, Moses said, adding that AIDS is a problem for the whole world. (AP)

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