When HIV/AIDS was thought of as a White, gay disease, it was often the suffering of Black patients that helped the world realize that it could affect anyone. Today, African-Americans remain the racial group most acutely affected by the epidemic.
When HIV/AIDS was thought of as a White, gay disease, it was often the suffering of Black patients that helped the world realize that it could affect anyone.
Today, African-Americans remain the racial group most acutely affected by the epidemic. And in the Black community, it is virtually impossible to discuss any social issue without understanding the role played by what has long been perhaps its single most unifying force: the church.
In past decades, as HIV/AIDS evolved into one of the most pressing issues among African-Americans, most religious leaders in South Los Angeles turned a blind-eye to the disease for a variety of reasons. Among them: discussing the disease meant having frank, often explicit discussions about sexuality — a topic historically treated as taboo.
Yet, it only takes one to stand up and call for unwavering action. Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, who pastored First African Methodist Episcopal Church for 27 years until his retirement in 2004, was that such person. In the 1980s, he became the first African-American pastor in South Los Angeles to provide condoms and HIV/AIDS literature to local churches.
"It was in the mid-'80s and AIDS at that time was an untouchable subject." he said. "It was not to be discussed in certain areas, but it was also untouchable in the sense that if someone was afflicted or inflicted with AIDS, you did not touch them."
There were at least two occasions, Murray recalled, in which people known to have HIV sat down in a pew and fellow members stood up and moved. "It caused," he reflected, "some degree of pain."
Recognizing the hurt and the destruction the disease was not only having on family units, but the church as a whole, when he and his congregation took on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, they were aggressive in their approach. "We were able to obtain packets, information, testing and so forth. We began to deliver these packets to all of our churches so that they would be able to give this information out to others," he said, noting that he could not continue to sit back while members of him own congregation and community began to die at an alarming rate. "The packets contained a condom, [addressing] males in particular. We were saying that if you cannot [adhere] to abstinence, at least protect your partner and yourself by using a condom."
The result was outcry from pastors who discussed their displeasure with Murray's methods through letters and phone calls. "On one occasion, from one of our major churches, one of the officers stood up in the middle of worship and lambasted us," he said.
Yet, Murray stayed the course. In addition to issuing out kits, mobile testing units would stop by the church to conduct testing. And later, there were lectures and workshops. Ironically enough, Murray noted that the same church where his efforts were once denounced ended up becoming an ally in the struggle.
"I think every change starts with a changer," he said. "It starts with you, it start with me, it starts with the neighbor. It only takes one or two and then the cause itself takes over. … There were so many people dying, that it would have been a sacrilege for the church not to act."
Rev. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor of Bryant Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, was another who accepted the idea that the church's role needed to be all-encompassing — focusing on the body, mind and soul.
Bryant Temple became involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS when Oden became senior pastor in 2002. However, Oden, who received a masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, was engaged long before then.
Prior to his stint at Bryant, Oden served as the chief executive officer of Watts Health Systems and the Watts Health Foundation, Inc. Out of the foundation came the South Los Angeles Community AIDS Project.
"We were one of the first organizations in South L.A. to have a direct intervention and treatment program for people who were HIV positive and persons living with AIDS," said Oden, who is currently chairperson of a working committee that serves the Statewide HIV/AIDS Church Outreach Advisory Board.
When he took over Bryant Temple, his work in the area followed. "It was my background in health care that brought a sensitivity to the needs of this community and the needs of this congregation," he said. "And among those needs are not only issues around hypertension and diabetes or obesity, but also the issue of HIV and AIDS."
Oden said he looks at the virus and the disease "as just another health care issue. Our slogan is that HIV is a virus, AIDS is a disease, and neither is a sin. That was our perspective when we began addressing that."
But, "my own sermons — and this goes back to the late 80s, early 90s — I was preaching about it," he added.
When he approached the church about galvanizing around the disease, Oden said he knew he would have to be intelligent about it and strategize — those were also two key factors that were successful for Murray, who created a think tank — because "within the African American community, there's been more of a reluctance" and "there was a significant amount of ignorance and fear and wrong information that was in the African-American community and promoted by some African-American church leaders.
"You have to be intelligent about the approach, and part of what we had to do was develop strategies on how to best talk about the issues of HIV as a virus and AIDS as a disease and talk about the issues in the context of both mixed company; that is when you have men and women, boys and girls," he added. "But also in the context of worship."
What took hold among his congregation was Oden's ability to make the disease a frequent topic, so much so that it became normal. "The more you make it routine, the more you make it a part of the regular conversation, the more we look at it not just as a special disease but just one of those that are part of our human existence," he said.
This allowed people to open up, and it was what led to the next step — putting a familiar face to the disease. One Sunday morning, a longtime member and officer of the church disclosed to the congregation that he had been living with HIV for more than two decades.
Oden said church members felt a full range of emotions. Some were shocked, others found the courage to step up and disclose their status as well. From there, the church began setting aside time during worship and Sunday school to have open dialogue about the matter and the issue of sensitivity. Oden also began teaching other pastors how to incorporate the topic in their sermons and how to successfully hold group sessions with church members.
Many of the tactics are found in a step-by-step resource called “Healing Begins Here: A Pastor's Guidebook for HIV/AIDS Ministry through the Church," to which Murray, Oden and a host of pastors helped to create through the Statewide HIV/AIDS Church Outreach Advisory Board. Armed with information about HIV/AIDS, its pervasiveness in the Black community and prevention, church leaders can read sermons and notes submitted by pastors who have used them to address their congregation about compassion and prevention strategies.
And while pastors have come to the table to offer aid and bring such tools to their churches, Oden said “progress is still spotty.”
Those sentiments are shared by Alisha Rhoden. Now the assistant pastor at a South L.A. church, she contracted HIV 30 years ago from her closeted gay husband.
"They [doctors] told me I had a gay disease because back then they were not calling it HIV or AIDS, they said gay disease and then GRID [gay-related immune deficiency] would follow after," said Rhoden, who lived in Michigan at the time. "They basically said, 'You're going to die. Don't have children. Tell your parents and don't come back in here because you'll ruin my practice.;”
When she built up the courage to tell her minister father, she was met with condemnation. He said, "you’ve sinned, you're going to hell and you must be cursed. I was told that by my father, who was a minister and still is. He pretty much told me I was cursed, I could not come back home for a period of time and that I must be a Jezebel. I was angry."
Back then, she said, the church was not as accepting. "It’s like 'I'll pray for you, but you don't say that you have it in my church.'" It is a philosophy, she said, that still exists today. "There is still some stigma, especially in the Black church."
“I see that every day. I am a minister in the church that I attend. I cannot tell my congregation that I'm positive or the pastor that I serve under," she said. "A lot of churches still, today, say that if a person is HIV, God cursed them. ... I find it challenging sometimes to be a minister, be a wife and then be a person who has AIDS. But, I came into the ministry knowing that God called me, and I'm here to help people like me."
This reporting was undertaken as part of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism.