Special Report: AIDS and Minorities

Black churches step up to front lines of HIV battle

CDC boosts funding for black faith community

It was clear in 1999 that black churches were going to take the lead in calling for greater prevention efforts and testing and treatment access for African-Americans at risk for HIV.

Black religious leaders across the nation have begun to speak out about the dangers of ignoring how the HIV epidemic plows through black communities.

Early on in the epidemic, AIDS advocates and the health care community recognized the important role black churches play in influencing behavior and attitudes in their communities. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has been providing direct funding to the African-American faith community since 1987. The funding, which supports churches’ HIV prevention activities, has grown from $10,000 in 1988 to $720,000 in 1998. Last year, the CDC nearly tripled this funding, pushing it to $2.2 million.

"This is an issue that we have been working on for over the last decade, and we’re beginning to see a real interest on the part of the faith community in getting involved," says Helene Gayle, MD, MPH, director of the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention at the CDC.

"Their involvement still is not where we’d like it to be, but I think this is an important area and one that we would like to provide support to and increase our support to," Gayle says. "We all recognize the role the church plays, particularly in minority communities, and that’s why this is an area where nationally we are placing efforts."

Most black churches were slow to take leadership in stopping the epidemic, and this is one of the many reasons AIDS has disproportionately affected African-Americans, says Pernessa C. Seele, founder and chief executive officer of The Balm In Gilead of New York. Founded in 1989, the Balm In Gilead is a national nonprofit organization that works through black churches to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Teaching ministers how to fight AIDS

The Balm In Gilead held the first Black Church HIV/AIDS Training Institute in October 1999. The program taught ministers and other participants how to integrate HIV/AIDS education into the church’s existing work and gave them skills to help address the social, economic, and psychological effects of AIDS.

Despite the growing efforts of black churches to become involved in HIV prevention, more work is needed, says Phill Wilson, executive director of the African-American AIDS Policy & Training Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"It’d be very powerful if all churches tomorrow were to take proactive roles in preventing HIV and AIDS and celebrate all of our humanity," Wilson says. "But I don’t think that we should wait for that to happen."

Wilson suggests health policy experts also engage other minority organizations in HIV prevention work. "There’s a role for fraternities and sororities to play and civic organizations to play," he says. "And what role does the black media play in dealing with HIV and AIDS?"