The Rev. Monte Norwood steps into the black van with “Knockout HIV” in white letters parked outside of Atlanta’s Bible Way Ministries International.
Inside, he extends his finger as Gary Jerkins of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation draws blood to run through the HIV antibody testing kit.
Within minutes, the results are in. Negative.
Norwood has taken the test before his congregation on several Sundays and nearly every second Wednesday or Thursday of the month as members and residents come to the church’s food pantry to encourage others in the community to know their status.
On this particular Wednesday more than 45 people were tested.
“I want to remove the stigma about HIV and AIDS and the fear of being tested and knowing your status,” said Norwood, 66, a second-generation pastor. “It’s not a death sentence. In fact, it empowers.”
The community the church serves is located in Fulton County, which has among the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the metro area.
In his father’s day, the church was more concerned about saving souls and the spiritual side of ministry, said Norwood. Although, he said, his father supports his work today, “there wasn’t much of a holistic approach” that included physical and mental health outreach.
In fact, the faith community, particularly in the African-American community, has become a key — and necessary — player in the fight against HIV/AIDS, advocates say.
Blacks account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, Blacks in the United States accounted for 13% of the US population but 43% of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses. In 2017, black women accounted for 59% of new HIV diagnoses among women, most contracted the disease through heterosexual contact and injection drug use.
It’s nothing new. Several local churches have launched health ministries and started testing outreach efforts.
In the early days of the epidemic, however, many communities and faith leaders were not in the forefront of combating the disease. In fact, people who were diagnosed were often shunned by the church community.
“A lot of it had to do with this was an unknown disease,” said W. Imara Canady, national director, communications and community outreach for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “”Nobody knew what it was and it was taking lives daily.”
Some churches stepped up early, but there is always an opportunity for more work to be done, he said.
“Church leaders are getting tested from the pulpit and there are ministries that help reduce the stigma and judgment. We have to recognize that, first and foremost, AIDS is not a gay disease, but a disease that impacts all people, particularly people of color,” Canady said. “We need to see the humanity and focus on combating the epidemic, whether it’s in a church, mosque, synagogue or any place of worship.”
Recently, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts called together prominent faith leaders and implored them to make HIV/AIDS awareness part of their Sunday Message during World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.
“The main drive behind ‘The Gospel of AIDS’ is to engage our local churches and their leaders in the HIV/AIDS crisis,” Pitts said in a release. “We must face the crisis together in order to defeat it, and our Churches play a crucial role in gathering our communities behind a worthy cause.”
Pitts announced that in partnership with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, HIV/AIDS testing will be offered at the Stonecrest megachurch on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb.7.
Among those who heeded Pitts’ request was the Rev. Jamal Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
“When I came (to the church) a year ago, within four days of my arrival was the CDC’s announcement that Atlanta was now rivaling Third World nations,” Bryant told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a previous interview. “And, embarrassingly, in a year I gave absolutely no redress to the issue until we were mounting towards World AIDS Day.
“I knew that everything sexual is taboo in the church. So, the church doesn’t speak to molestation, incest, rape, STDs or AIDS and I really felt if New Birth and the church at large is going to be relevant that we really have to deal with it when so many in the community are being impacted by it.”
An estimated 1.1 million people in the United States have HIV, including about 162,500 people who are not aware of their status.
The Trump Administration wants to cut transmission of the disease by 75% in the next five years and by 90% in the next 10 years.
The Rev. Charles R. Ramsey Jr., senior pastor of St. John AME Church in Fairburn, knows people who are HIV positive and who are living long lives and he wants to do what he can to help.
Last year, the church held a community symposium on HIV/AIDS and offered testing. More than 35 people were tested. He said they were not told how many — if any — tested positive.
The church plans to do another testing event in the spring.
“The key is to get people tested,” said Ramsey, whose church has about 200 members. He said there have been discussions about forming a support group for people living with the disease.
“The church is the voice of the community and it has to take the lead,” he said. “Hopefully, one day they will come up with a cure for this disease.”
“I still get other pastors who ask why are you doing this’?” Norwood said. “A lot of them still stereotype the behavior of people who get HIV/AIDS as a sin or they won’t want to get pushback from their congregations, who may be conservative. They say it’s not their issue, but I’m a pastor who says it is our issue whether or not we want to recognize it. We all know people who are infected or affected.”
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