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by Dr. Sheridan T. Yeary

Last month at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, there was a major breakthrough in the battle against HIV/AIDS.  Though a cure for the disease was not presented, the NAACP did unveil a new, powerful tool in the fight—The Black Church and HIV manual.  The manual serves as a roadmap for faith leaders to move their congregations toward increased awareness of the HIV crisis and then, ultimately, toward advocacy and prevention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 16 Black men and one in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime. The high number of people living with HIV in Black communities, and the fact that Blacks tend to have sex with partners of the same race or ethnicity, means that they face a greater risk of HIV infection with each new sexual encounter. In fact, Blacks make up just 14 percent of the United States population, but account for 44 percent of new HIV infections. If Black America was its own country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people with HIV.

One of the facts that led to this growth in HIV cases is that those living with the virus may appear and feel healthy for several years. Though the HIV is affecting their bodies in countless ways, they can live on oblivious to the disease until they get tested or the HIV leads to AIDS. In much the same way, the Black community has voluntarily avoided open and honest discussion on this issue even as it ravages us from within.

The NAACP’s manual will be a critically important resource for bringing the issue of HIV/AIDS out of the shadows of the Black community and into the open.  For far too long this subject has been taboo in those places where the intimate details of our lives are shared—our homes, our neighborhoods and, most tellingly, our places of worship.   The stigma of HIV has been so powerful that it even suppresses basic education that can save lives, leaving our community in the center of a full-blown crisis.

The Black Church and HIV manual is an inspirational first step toward addressing the HIV epidemic as the social justice issue it truly is. Too few realize that many of the more “classic” social justice problems actually augment the crisis. Families stuck in poverty often face limited or restricted access to high-quality health care, a dearth of safe housing options, and few opportunities for HIV-prevention education. Thus, the battle against HIV is directly tied to the battle against poverty, the struggle for fair housing, and the campaign for equal access to affordable, high-quality health care.

The Black church’s collective response to HIV will require fair and honest reflection—and it may take some time and some readjustment to current realities. Sexually transmitted diseases and related illnesses are difficult subjects to talk about. But the creation of this manual demonstrates that it is possible, and necessary, to have these tough discussions. The NAACP interviewed more than 250 faith leaders across multiple denominations from around the country in creating this manual. The Association will continue to organize educational workshops for clergy members in cities and seminaries around the country so that pastors are aware, engaged, and mobilized to create sustainable change.

As we reflect on the International AIDS Conference this year, we issue a call to action to all leaders of the Black church. We ask that faith leaders join our efforts and lend their influential voices to the issues of equity and justice centered on HIV. As with all social justice concerns, winning the battle against HIV/AIDS requires that we first acknowledge that the struggle is indeed real.

(Dr. Sheridan Todd Yeary is the senior pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, Md.)

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