WASHINGTON -- Black ministers, long criticized for their reluctance to talk frankly about AIDS and its devastating impact on black communities, broke their relative silence yesterday in the wake of Earvin "Magic" Johnson's stunning disclosure that he has contracted the AIDS virus.
In churches nationwide, they searched the scriptures for the right words to discuss such sensitive issues as black sexuality, homosexuality and drug abuse that must be addressed in any discussion of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
For black preachers -- many of whom have been unwilling to bring discussions of sex into their sanctuaries and perhaps had never mentioned AIDS from their pulpits -- Mr. Johnson's announcement heightened a dilemma: How to help educate and protect their congregations against AIDS without seeming to condone such risky behavior as drug use and promiscuous sex.
"This is something we don't talk about in church," the Rev. Philip R. Cousin Jr. of Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church here told about 150 parishioners at an early morning service. "This is so difficult. I suppose it takes a national figure to make us deal with AIDS."
"I don't see how any minister could preach on Sunday without in some way referring to that event," said the Rev. Zan Holmes of the St. Luke Community Methodist Church in Houston, referring to Mr. Johnson's announcement last week. "This could be the spark that will bring unity among the African-American churches and wake people up to the dangers of AIDS."
In Detroit, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told 350 church-goers at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church that word of Mr. Johnson's affliction "was like a hole had been shot through our souls."
Activists involved with AIDS support and education programs have long been critical of the silence from black pulpits, contending that black religious leaders have been too slow to offer comfort to black AIDS sufferers. Moreover, they have said, black clergy fear frank discussions of homosexuality, premarital sex and other forms of promiscuous behavior associated with AIDS, even as the disease spreads rapidly through minority communities -- and through their own congregations.
But at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Southwest Los Angeles, there was no mention of the basketball star's name, even though his wife had been a member of the church for two years and Mr. Johnson himself joined a week ago.