In King's memory, clergy target community scourge

Ministers call AIDS an immediate threat

January 22, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail for desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Ala., when he wrote that the struggle for equality and dignity had no boundaries, because "whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

Yesterday, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock took an HIV test in the back of a trailer in West Baltimore to deliver a similar message. AIDS is attacking thousands in the black community here, he said, so ministers and church members need to lead the way in encouraging people to get tested and treated to stop its spread.

"If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, there is no doubt that HIV/AIDS would be at the top of his agenda," said Warnock, one of about 50 people - including seven clergy members - who took tests at yesterday's event. "For while there are many problems and issues that present awesome challenges to the African-American community, HIV/AIDS is a direct and immediate threat, a clear and present danger to our survival."

The HIV tests - and other events around the city - were in tune with what King's family urged as a fitting remembrance of his legacy. In events in Atlanta and Detroit yesterday, his widow, Coretta Scott King, and son Martin Luther King III asked people to spend the day helping the community.

"We don't see it as a day off," his son said during a prayer breakfast in Detroit. "We see it as a day on which people can be involved in community service."

In keeping with that theme, community groups and others throughout Baltimore held events focusing on health, education and King's life.

The American Red Cross teamed with the National Black Catholic Congress to sponsor a blood drive in West Baltimore.

At the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in North Baltimore, students and volunteers involved in a youth mentoring program participated in a workshop to discuss how to become examples of King's messages of service, peace and unity. Participants wrote their own versions of his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

Also yesterday, Center Stage was the site of a peace ceremony, which included music and readings commemorating the work of King.

At the HIV testing site, leaders talked of King's commitment to social issues as they outlined the dangers AIDS posed in the black community.

About 18,000 people live with HIV or AIDS in the city, according to the Rev. Deborah Hickman, co-founder of a group that helps infected black women, using figures from the Maryland AIDS Administration. She said more than 80 percent of those infected are black.

Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church and former head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said King would have pioneered a movement to wipe AIDS out of the black community.

"He would be standing with those who are HIV-infected and proclaim that there is an epidemic sweeping the African-American community," said Miles, who was expected to be at the testing site, but said he could not make it because of an emergency. "If the same figures were being reported for the white community nationally, we would be declaring an epidemic."

Part of the problem in getting help to those with HIV/AIDS is the stigma of being tested, said participants yesterday.

People associate AIDS with moral wrongdoing and fear they will be shunned if they test positive. So they live in denial - and more people get infected.

Yesterday's event outside Douglas Memorial Community Church on Madison Avenue, where Warnock is pastor, was designed to remove that stigma.

Led by the ministers, people lined up outside the church to take tests in two mobile vans. The new tests don't require blood samples and amount to little more than a cheek swab.

Magaline Parker, 68, waited inside one of the vans for a test. She said she was doing it to serve as an example for others.

"I think the young people will come out if they see the old people," she said, standing next to 84-year-old Bertha Wilson, who said she was taking the test because it helped symbolize King's life.

"I think he would want you to do something to help others," Wilson said.

Others in line said they had wanted to be tested for some time but had been putting it off.

"I know I need to have it done," said a nervous Charisse Harding, 42.

Workers said the results of the test will not be known for two weeks.

When it came time for Warnock's turn, he stepped inside the small room at the back of the trailer with his clerical robes on. As a caseworker looked on, he stuck a small blue swab in his mouth that will test for the presence of AIDS antibodies.

Afterward, he said that people have to begin talking freely about AIDS.

"If we say to our parishioners that the issue is health and wholeness ... then we can create a culture of compassion," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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