In America

Opinion: Attention black churches: Ignorance on HIV/AIDS can kill

Editor’s Note: Rev. Stacey Latimer is the founder and CEO of Love Alive International, a faith-based non-profit committed to empowering African-Americans with HIV/AIDS.  He is senior pastor of the group’s non-denominational ministry and was named to POZ Magazine’s list of 100 effective fighters against HIV/AIDS. 

Marcus, Kevin and Trevor are pseudonyms being used to protect the identities of those individuals.

By Stacey Latimer, Special to CNN

Marcus was pastor of a Sunday school at a Baptist church in the South. He was born as a same-gender-loving man. As most same-gender-loving people in fundamentalist houses of worship, Marcus lived a double life, or on the “down low,” for he felt it was the only way to continue in ministry and stay connected to the community he loved.

The congregation absolutely loved Marcus’ vocal gift. He could sing them into the presence of the Lord.

When Marcus found out that he was HIV positive, he informed his beloved pastor, who directed him to allow the elders of the church to anoint him with oil and pray for him each Sunday until God healed and delivered him. Following the advice of his spiritual leader, Marcus did this for eight years without any medical care from a health professional.

Due to the lack of medical treatment, physical changes became noticeable and rumors of his HIV infection began to spread. As whispers of homosexuality ran rampant, the leadership took action.

Pastor Marcus, as he was called, was connected to a sister within the congregation and essentially coaxed into marrying her. There was no proper HIV prevention counseling given to the couple.  It’s unclear if Marcus’ wife even knew about his positive status.

I was brought into Marcus’ life by local health department officials who wanted me to intervene and explain to Marcus’ pastor the importance of HIV care and prevention. The man believed Marcus would be healed by God.  This likely helped to fuel Marcus’ denial about his positive status. The health department had determined that Marcus infected six other men with HIV. By the time I met Marcus, he had also infected his wife who – at the time – was pregnant with his child. She miscarried the baby.

Marcus died more than three years ago. There are members of his congregation who still refuse to take an HIV test.

Pastor fights HIV stigma in rural town

As an activist fighting to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, I have seen stories like Marcus’ again and again, and witnessed how ignorance can injure, maim and kill. Knowledge has the potential of preventing injury and preserving life. Black Americans should be getting more knowledge about HIV/AIDS from their churches, which constitute the center of life for the majority of black America.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States and about 50,000 Americans become infected with the virus each year. Blacks represent roughly 14% of the U.S. population, but about 44% of new infections are among African-Americans.

We are 30-plus years years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic and black Americans continue to be infected by HIV at alarming rates. In black and poverty-stricken communities, there are still many people who do not know what the acronyms HIV or AIDS stand for, let alone know how the virus is transmitted. Despite available treatments which allow most HIV-infected individuals to experience a high quality of life, HIV/AIDS for black people in the United States debilitates and kills every single day.

One young man killed by AIDS was named Kevin, the son of pastor of a Jehovah’s Witness Assembly church in South Carolina. I met Kevin while I was the house manager for Project Care in Greenville, South Carolina. Kevin was forced to live in a mobile home in his back yard, without electricity and running water. The pastor’s wife refused to let Kevin, her stepson, live inside their house with her children.

Rejection by family, along with lack of proper housing, while trying to cope with all the mental stressors brought on Kevin’s demise. Even though we placed him into housing, he never recovered.  Opportunistic infections led to an early death.

Florida city battles fear and denial

This year, my organization, Love Alive International, engaged a number of churches serving people of the diaspora in New York state that have yet to provide or link their parishioners with any HIV/AIDS information or resources. During the last six months, we have encountered individuals who still believe HIV is spread through eating or kissing an HIV-infected individual.

The question remains, why does HIV/AIDS have such a stronghold in the African-American community? The answer is as complex as the forces that fuel its spread. We live in one of the richest, most powerful countries in the free world, yet we have been absolutely powerless in ending poverty, illiteracy, classism, racism, oppression and ignorance. All of the aforementioned crises are barriers to stemming the tide of HIV infections.

The weight of the evidence, from my perspective, suggests the virus is spreading due to the dehumanizing force of homophobia. I believe that homophobia is perpetuated by fundamentalist religions which refuse to operate in Agape  - a divine, unconditional love - with the brotherhood of man who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered, and HIV infected in particular.

In houses of faith across the country, I’ve witnessed people open to experiencing and sharing the powerful love of God’s grace without prescribed conditions.  When this happens, there is miraculous healing, deliverance, and change.

The mission of the people who are a part of the Agape community - and who comprehend the impact HIV/AIDS has on black America - is to restore the “waste places,” the families and communities almost wiped out from the destruction of HIV/AIDS.

This begins with HIV prevention, education, testing and care, treatment of the sick and injured.  I have witnessed sons, daughters, mothers and fathers die slowly, not only because of AIDS, but from rejection by family and community. They never recovered emotionally from the hurt; and they succumbed to depression, resulting in noncompliance to almost everything productive and healthy that would aid their survival.

I have also seen the situation end differently.

Trevor is an HIV positive, 24-year-old Jamaican man who recently contacted me through Facebook, inquiring about the church I lead.

After three Sundays of failing to show up, I walked into the service on the fourth Sunday afternoon and there he was. It was easy to see just how uncomfortable he felt. He left the service before it was finished.

When I spoke with him later that evening he stated through tears, “I have not been to a worship service in years. All my life, my parents, pastor and church family have told me that I was going to Hell, that I was evil. I don’t feel that I belong in church.”

It has been an honor for me to be a part of his steps toward healing, first spiritually and then physically. That healing will manifest in his adherence to his HIV medication regimen and total health care.

The sad part is acknowledging the massive damage that one lie - “you are evil” - has done to this young man.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stacey Latimer.