A NUMBER of observers have been critical of the black church's "silence" on AIDS. They say the church is misguided at best and insensitive at worst to the devastation of AIDS in the African-American community.
I believe this negative stereotype grows out of a combination of misinformation and misunderstanding of what the black church stands for and is doing. It is time to break the silence.
The truth is that the black church has been struggling with the issue of spirituality and sexuality. Sexuality is not just a problem for the black church. The nation is struggling with such sexually charged issues as teen-age pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and incest. Sex education is not a dilemma just for the black church. People all over the country are struggling with how to develop a program of sex education that is equitable and effective.
The truth is that black churches, pastors and members have been engaged in dealing with AIDS for a long time. The regular visits to AIDS patients and their families fall under the umbrella of our sick and shut-in ministries. Counseling and financial assistance for families with loved ones who have contracted the disease come under the umbrella of already established ministries of the church. Few black churches have not had a member who has died of AIDS. More often than not, the process, from diagnosis to illness to death, has forced the church to face its own fears and misconceptions about the illness and its consequences.
As I visit African-American churches across the country, I wonder if the real problem is the black church's "silence" on AIDS. Or is it special interest groups trying to use the AIDS issue to force the black church to accept definitions of sexual morality, sexual preference and safe sex about which it has serious theological and biblical reservations?
Clearly, the black church is not monolithic in its view of sexuality. Some of our congregations are extremely liberal and others are very conservative. However, it is a serious mistake for some African-American intellectuals, gay rights activists and liberal politicians to brand the black church as Victorian and homophobic because we lift up a different standard on the issue of sexuality.
The fact is that the black church does not have a history of gay bashing and homophobia. Even those churches that hold to a conservative approach on sexual issues have loved the homosexual while disliking the practice of homosexuality. While our pews hold people who have committed adultery and fornication and may have children outside of marriage, the black church at its best has managed to love the sinner without loving the sin. To deny a church its right to define the issues of sexual morality, sexual preference and safe sex for its members in a way that is consistent with the congregation's understanding of the scripture is a form of spiritual fascism and church-bashing that must not be tolerated.
AIDS is a life or death issue for the African-American community and the black church. Yet, even here the demonic head of racism is raised. How much of the money raised to sustain AIDS patients and support groups is earmarked for, and ultimately reaches, the African-American community? Why is the African continent, where there are a large number of AIDS victims, many of them children, ignored when it comes time to develop an international strategy to deal with AIDS?
Moreover, those who criticize us as insensitive need reminding that the black church is struggling with other issues that cause our community to journey through the valley of the shadow of death. These are issues that many of these critics ignore.
Basketball superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson's announcement that he is a carrier of the AIDS virus paves the way for a bridge of healing and hope that could have powerful and positive consequences for the African-American community and the nation. In an attempt to empower the black church in developing a liberating strategy that helps us overcome the AIDS crisis, I ask this question:
What would Jesus do? In our attempt to develop meaningful ministries and theological rationales, we should read closely the gospels and honestly think what Jesus would do if he were confronted by an HIV carrier or AIDS patient. Would Jesus refuse to touch the person, talk or minister to him or her? Would Jesus ignore the family of the patient? Would Jesus exclude the family from his ministry?
The answer is in the New Testament account of Jesus' life: Jesus would embrace the AIDS victim. Can the black church afford to do any less? He would share with the AIDS patient the power of liberating love. Can the black church afford to do any less?
Dr. Frank M. Reid III is the senior pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.