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This Far by Faith

Journeys

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1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW
1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER
1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANING
The Black Church and HIV/AIDS TODAY: The Journey Continues



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Timeline: 1967-TODAY View Detailed Timeline
TODAY: The Journey Continues
TODAY: The Journey Continues



1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANING
The Black Church and HIV/AIDS



"Years ago, when I was working at Harlem Hospital, I was stunned by the sight of people and families suffering from AIDS amid a seemingly heartless community...How could Black America, for the first time in its history, turn away from brothers and sisters caught in a crisis that could destroy the community at its very roots? Why was the response to the AIDS crisis different from previous crises -- enslavement, discrimination, and lynching?" --Pernessa Seale, Founder/CEO, Balm in Gilead


Black Liberation Theology stayed in the seminary; on the streets, new dangers faced a black community less unified in faith in the 1980s than it had been in the fifties. As the new economy took old blue-collar jobs away, families were left with no income. And while the old sins of drug addiction and promiscuity had been around as long as the Old Testament, a new disease - AIDS - challenged the church, the mosque, and the temples.


Cecil Williams talks with people out on the street in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.  Glide Memorial Church is one church that ministers to those battling drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.

Cecil Williams talks with people out on the street in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. Glide Memorial Church is one church that ministers to those battling drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.


African Americans make up 13% of the general population, but account for more than 50% of the estimated 40,000 new HIV infections that occur yearly. One in every 50 black men and one in every 160 black women is HIV positive. The black church came under intense criticism, starting in 1985, for being slow to respond to this crisis.

It was a difficult issue. Ministers had to confront behaviors they define every Sunday from the pulpit as highly immoral: homosexuality, drug use, and promiscuous sexuality. Homosexuality is particularly stigmatized in black communities, and black ministers voiced their disapproval - despite the presence of gay worshippers in the congregation.

Black churches were not alone in ignoring the AIDS epidemic. Prominent black civil rights organizations such as the Urban League and NAACP refused for years to make AIDS a priority. White churches, too, were reluctant to take on the issue.

By the end of the 1990s, as the epidemic continued to grow, black churches finally embraced those with HIV/AIDS. In 1989, 50 churches participated in the first Black Church Week of Prayer for Healing AIDS, led by Balm in Gilead, a nonprofit organization that helps black churches provide AIDS education and support networks. During the 1999 Week of Prayer, 5,000 churches held worship services, lectures and concerts to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, according to Pernessa Seele, CEO of Balm in Gilead.

"My strategy is simple," she says. "I ask the ministers to offer a prayer for those who are sick or dying of AIDS. After service, they are always surprised by how many of their parishioners come up and tell them how this disease has touched them personally."

In 2002, she took the program to Africa.

A former administrator at Harlem Hospital, Seele founded the organization after growing tired of watching hundreds of AIDS patients die alone, without the support of their churches. "The church I knew in the South was always a place you could bring your pain, sickness, and grief," Ms. Seele said. "I couldn't bear the silence anymore."

One man, Rev. Eugene Rivers, took a similar approach to the crack epidemic. Black churches, Rivers said, "need to have their feet put to the fire around this issue." He and three other ministers formed the Ten Point Coalition to combat violence and gang activity in Boston. Read more about Rev. Rivers' program at http://www.tgsrm.org/Church%20Leadership%20Crisis.html

The crack epidemic declined, and crime dropped nationwide, so churches were perhaps not forced into action in the same way they have been by the rise of HIV/AIDS among black Americans. Still, black churches have long been characterized as the first line of defense against crises in black communities. The fact that it took nearly a decade-and in the case of AIDS, almost two decades - before black ministers and their congregations could respond to two devastating epidemics suggests that the church may no longer be in the vanguard of the black community.




People of Faith


 Cecil Williams
Cecil Williams


Did You Know?



HIV/AIDS has been particularly devastating to the black community.
more


Homosexuality exists in an "open closet" in some black churches.
more


AIDS is a global crisis for black people.
more

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