On Sept. 29, Health HIV and the Black AIDS Institute hosted a webinar on ways to involve the Black community in the discussion of HIV. The webinar consisted largely of questions posed to the Rev. Keron R. Sadler, health programs manager at the NAACP, and Pastor Darren W. Phelps, senior pastor and founder of Bethel Christian Church in Washington, D.C.
Matthew Rose, program coordinator at the Black AIDS Institute, began the conversation with HIV demographics. Rose said, "We know that the epidemic affects Black people from pretty much every risk category." In 2010, Black individuals made up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 44 percent of new HIV infections.
The webinar focused largely on the relationship between the Black community and local churches. Sadler said, "If you think about the civilrights movement, the NAACP and the Black church have always been a phenomenal partner together."
The speakers noted the importance of working with the entire person. Phelps said, "We are also looking at mental health and … looking at family support and the linkage of care that goes even into relationships. … Balancing all of that with your faith and how you see God and not seeing yourself as an outcry or an outcast, all of that helps us in the Free Indeed ministry."
The speakers also discussed several challenges, including the taboo nature of HIV. Sadler said, "In the Black community, HIV still just doesn't seem to be a topic of discussion … there's so much stigma that is associated with HIV." Phelps said, "You have many of the leadership that are also on the low who have gone without being tested themselves."
And some communities are stigmatized more than others. Said Phelps, "We work with sex workers and we deal with persons who are coming out of prison and sometimes that continuum of care is not there at the level that we would hope it to be."
Another challenge is the general lack of knowledge. Phelps said, "This is not just picking up a packet … but how do you live? How do you deal with it? What's out there for us."
Phelps also talked about teaching by doing. He said, "Not only did we want to talk about it. … We wanted to be about the change." One of the ways that Phelps' leadership achieves this goal is through a fall festival that includes HIV testing. Said Phelps, "All of the folks who serve in leadership along with me in the church, we line up on that day and we're one of the first to get tested. … As people who are walking on the streets see us lined up, they feel encouraged."
Bethel Christian Church also speaks out about HIV daily. Phelps said, "At every convocation, at every place we go, we provide testing and it is spoken about from the pulpit, it is shared, it is not just on World AIDS day in December, but it's something that is built in."
The speakers also mentioned ways to engage in outreach that don't emphasize religion. Sadler said, "The goal is not to change that person's theology. The point is to raise awareness … providing them with the specific information [and] not our own personal opinions." Phelps said, "We do have a nonprofit arm that helps the nonreligious side of the work and so that's one of the ways that we've been able to reach some of the young folks. We do not come to them with waving our Bibles and our faith in the sense of wearing a cross and saying, 'Jesus loves you, come drink the water,' but we certainly come to the folks in giving them hope and understanding."
The speakers also valued diversity. Sadler said, "We do invite to the table those of various faiths. We've had Rabbis. We've had Muslims. … We know that the community is made of all individuals."
If a church wishes to start this conversation, Phelps said, "It may be the smaller steps of even having pamphlets, of having reminders on their bulletins if they do that, of having email blasts, something on your website that says that you want people to be healthy and to be tested. … Host a roundtable, a coffee hour and, then, even if it's only two or three people, at least you've begun that conversation."
Phelps suggested that individuals who want their own churches to start testing respect the leadership without being afraid to make trouble. "If we wait for those people [who are uncomfortable] to come on board before we step and we evolve and educate, we will all be dead and gone," said Phelps.