Black churches in Arizona and across the U.S. are working to be more assertive in the fight against HIV and to be more helpful to members who have the virus.

Black Arizonans are being infected with HIV at alarming rates. Pastors are joining the fight for prevention and treatment.

Fifteen years ago, MiAsia Pasha invited black faith leaders throughout the Phoenix area to a town hall about how HIV and AIDS were affecting their congregations.

Nobody showed up.

“Our sisters and brothers were dying, and none of the churches wanted to talk about it,” said Pasha, who had been diagnosed with HIV a decade earlier.

The statistics remain bleak today: Black Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but represent 40 percent of people living with HIV, and they are more likely to die of the virus than members of any other racial or ethnic group.

Now, though, church leaders are showing up.

When the Arizona Community Foundation’s Black Philanthropy Initiative hosted an HIV-prevention forum last month, for instance, the speaker lineup included three Phoenix pastors. They apologized on behalf of black faith leaders for ignoring the problem and stigmatizing HIV-positive congregants over the years.

The church, long a center of black cultural identity and social activism, isn’t the only institution critical to the HIV fight. Health experts agree people need broad access to prevention tips and tools, frequent testing and affordable, comprehensive medical care to turn the numbers around.

But “the role of the church in the black community is still paramount,” said Reginald D. Walton, pastor at Phillips Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Phoenix.

“Yes, we have our issues. Yes, we are not a monolith,” Walton said. “But the church still holds a very special place in our culture, and in particular, pastors hold a very powerful position or very charismatic position in our community.

“If pastors and churches get involved in attacking this disease and dispelling the myths, we could really see this disease come to an end,” he said.


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An enduring stigma

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the immune system. It can spread through sexual contact; sharing of needles or syringes; and from mother to child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

Black women are 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women, and black men are eight times more likely to be diagnosed than white men. Gay and bisexual black men face an even higher risk, with one in two expected to become HIV-positive if infection rates stay constant.

Although no cure exists, antiretroviral therapy can help suppress HIV, allowing someone who begins treatment before the disease advances to live a long life. If left untreated, HIV makes it increasingly difficult for the body to defend itself against infections and can lead to AIDS.

Pasha, now 64, contracted the virus sexually after her then-husband was unfaithful, she said. The Scottsdale resident found out she was HIV-positive at age 39, after they divorced and he died of AIDS.

Her ex-husband had refused to accept medical care, Pasha said, and for years, she did the same. Her diagnosis left her in “total devastation,” as did the backlash she faced when she began telling people she was HIV-positive. Pasha said her sister threw her out of her home because she “didn’t want her kids catching what I’d got.”

Pasha witnessed the same stigma in churches she visited at the time, she said.

“Pastors didn’t want to lose their congregations by talking about something people were afraid of. People thought you could catch it from toilet seats, from touching,” she said. “A lot of people still do. The misconceptions are what’s killing us.”

William Francis, an Atlanta pastor and ambassador for the NAACP’s Black Church and HIV Social Justice Imperative, said he has “not only observed the same patterns, but also been a victim of them.”

Francis, who is heterosexual, was diagnosed with HIV in 2009. He went to Bible study afterward, seeking solace, but leaders “immediately began to try to ‘pray the gay spirit out of me,’ ” he said.

“Instead of praying for healing, the messages I got were damning,” he said. “I wound up leaving the church and wound up depressed, trying to figure out how to commit suicide and make it look like an accident.”

The experience ultimately propelled Francis to become a pastor himself, specializing in HIV ministry work. He trains other church leaders to manage the topic with sensitivity through the NAACP’s initiative.

“We’ve got to reduce the shame,” he said. “It’s about taking the idea that this is a death sentence or a punishment from God off the table and preaching messages of hope and love.”

‘A place of healing’

Erline Belton chairs the Balm in Gilead, an organization that partners with black faith institutions worldwide to prevent disease and eliminate health disparities.

She said the most effective HIV-prevention programs build on each church’s unique infrastructure, using facts as a “call to action,” ensuring female members have a role and dedicating adequate funding for testing and training.

Why is the black population experiencing higher HIV rates?

Socioeconomic factors: Poverty, racial discrimination and uneven access to health care contribute to an elevated HIV risk. Higher incarceration rates “disrupt social networks and decrease the number of available partners.”

High prevalence of HIV: Like other racial and ethnic groups, black Americans tend to sleep with members of the same race. Since HIV-infection rates are already high within the group, members face a higher risk of exposure with each sexual encounter.

High prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases: Having other STDs increases the risk of HIV infection. The prevalence of STDs is higher among black Americans than in any other racial or ethnic group.

Stigma: Fear of revealing one’s sexual orientation, risky sexual behavior or HIV status can stop people from pursuing HIV testing or related medical care. This factor is not unique to the black population.

Source: CDC

Before any of that can happen, though, the pastor must commit to being a “champion,” publicly addressing the issue without fear or judgment again and again. That zeal can take time to develop, she said, and might never happen for leaders who can’t reconcile HIV with their beliefs.

“You can’t push people into it or shame people into it,” Belton said. “The pastor’s theological position is going to impact what happens in the church. If the way he or she views the Bible is that it does not accept gay people, or if the pastor does not understand that HIV/AIDS is a disease that does not necessarily come from sexual transmission … they’re not going to preach about it.”

Providing training and opportunities for pastors to “get together and talk with their own peer groups” can mark a first step toward reaching those leaders, she said.

“You’ve got to talk about, what are you going to do to move this agenda forward?” she said. “That’s something I believe needs to happen in Phoenix.”

Sheriolyn Curry Lasley, pastor at Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Phoenix, agreed. Though she participated in the March awareness forum, she said she remains unsure about “where a lot of other churches stand.”

“If this is going to change, it’s going to change with those institutions … leading the way,” Curry Lasley said. “For me, the perpetrator of the hurt has to be the one to be the healer of the hurt, and the church for years has inflicted hurt on the population by not addressing this epidemic or by participating in the stigma.”

Curry Lasley is working with church officials to come up with a plan for her congregation, she said, because “not getting involved is no longer an option.”

Warren Stewart Jr., pastor at Church of the Remnant in south Phoenix, also said the data was impossible to ignore.

“When I was growing up, my Sunday school teacher died of AIDS. But honestly, I’d thought (the spread of HIV) was under control now,” he said. “The Arizona numbers shocked me.”

Stewart said his first step will involve “starting a dialogue” with church members, encouraging them to get tested and to know their HIV status. “Then it’ll be about telling them, ‘We’re here for you, regardless of if you got a negative or positive,’ ” he said.

“As many people want to pull away from the church these days, the reality is that the black church started the civil-rights movement and every movement since,” he said. “This needs to be a movement, too: How do we get a people who are oppressed, broken, diseased, hurting to a place of healing and transformation?”

At Phillips Memorial, Walton has incorporated HIV/AIDS awareness into his ministry for years, consistently speaking about the virus, offering HIV testing at the church biannually and making condoms available after services.

“Some of our older members were very shocked by those decisions initially, but they’re starting to get why I’m so adamant,” he said. “I’ve had people leave because of my stance on it, but more people have been supportive than have left and gotten upset.”

Pasha, now in treatment, said it’s going to take many more stubborn leaders like Walton — willing to face controversy even it means losing members or donations — to reverse the statistics.

“Without the pastors in the pulpit saying we don’t have to live with fear, people are going to keep dying of this disease,” she said.

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