AIDS hits home in Baltimore's black congregations Congregations rally to meet challenge

May 10, 1992|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Staff Writer

Portrait of a black church in transition:

Three years ago, the members of Unity United Methodist Church had not been touched by AIDS and didn't think of it as a problem worth addressing.

In the last year, the church has buried five people who died from the disease, joined a fledgling organization called Churches United Against AIDS, and embraced a member who is HIV-positive.

"One of the things the church has to realize is that the mission of the church is not to the well, but to the sick," said the Rev. Norman Handy, Unity's pastor, who has prodded his Harlem Park congregation into its newfound activism.

Like Unity, other black churches in Baltimore are overcoming a deep reluctance to deal with the issue of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Even though many churches are located in areas plagued by drugs, violence and poverty, many churchgoers are middle-class people who have long left behind the neighborhoods -- and the problems -- surrounding their houses of worship. "When I first came here [in 1989], we had an older congregation which did not have any idea of outreach or social concern," Mr. Handy said.

Since then, attitudes about AIDS have been changing in the black religious community, touching congregations large and small. Once-wary ministers, pressed by church members and AIDS activists, are allowing outreach and education programs in their churches. Other pastors are speaking out. AIDS is becoming nearly impossible to ignore.

More than 1,200 black Baltimoreans have been diagnosed since 1988 as having AIDS, which has overtaken homicide as the leading cause of death among adults between 25 and 44. Even more alarming, between 8,000 to 16,000 black residents are believed to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which leads to AIDS. Blacks account for 79 percent of Baltimore's AIDS cases; virtually all the women and babies with the disease are black. Although drug use remains the major mode of transmission, the number of people contracting the virus through heterosexual intercourse is increasing.

"People are recognizing that it's just not an empty threat, that this thing is real," said Brenda Pridgen, who coordinates the city's AIDS programs. "Churches are now taking it upon themselves because they have been impacted, because they have had someone in their family or congregation who has been infected."

The devastation of AIDS presents a perplexing and challenging problem to the black churches. More than any other institution, the church serves as the community's prime meeting place. Two out of every three blacks in the Baltimore area belong to a church, polls show. Yet many churches tend to be conservative, not given to activism.

Dealing with AIDS required pastors and churchgoers to talk about sex, promiscuity, homosexuality and use of illicit drugs -- subjects that are usually taboo. And AIDS forced many churchgoers and religious leaders to re-examine the meaning of Christianity. Congregations were asked to see AIDS patients as people who were sick instead of dismissing them as junkies or prostitutes or homosexuals, sinners to be scorned.

"We have all this other baggage because AIDS came into our community through a group that we have tried to disconnect from," said Bernette Jones, who coordinates a teen program for the Urban League.

Perhaps hardest of all, confronting AIDS meant acknowledging that it could touch mainstream black Baltimore, including churchgoers, their friends and their relatives.

"There was a perception that we weren't going to be affected," said Ms. Jones. "It wasn't affecting us. So the people in the black community who could do something about it, the black church, the black community organizations, did not take the risk to do something."

To understand the extent of the community's denial, go back to 1987 when Ms. Pridgen, then a newcomer to Baltimore, tried to contact the city's black churches. Her group mailed 500 letters, offering to give seminars on HIV infection and AIDS. One church replied. The next year, the Rev. Wendell Phillips invited 300 churches to an AIDS workshop organized by his Heritage United Church of Christ. Only nine churches sent representatives.

Back then and still today, people are struggling to apply Jesus Christ's teachings to a complex, modern-day crisis. It is part of a process in which, as Mr. Handy said:

"The church picks up its dainty skirt and begins to address the dirt on its feet and the dirt on its shoes. I've been trying to address it because I understand that we all have dirty feet."

The minister recalled that three years ago, while he was helping to organize an AIDS symposium at Howard University, the religious community in southern Prince Georges' County was similarly reluctant to deal with AIDS.

"Nobody wanted to talk about it," he said. "We had a clergy association of 19 members, but nobody wanted to get involved with it, and they were underwriting the symposium with a $10,000 grant."

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