HIV/AIDS is a part of our family. As is the case with an eccentric relative (and we all have a weird uncle), even though we may be embarrassed by him, we do have to own him. It may make some of us uncomfortable to discuss this topic but there is no doubt – HIV/AIDS is now our disease. I know this too well, as a physician, Shelby County health officer, and former state health commissioner.
In Tennessee, African Americans account for the majority of new HIV infections, 70 percent of the AIDS cases secondary to IV drug use, and 80 percent of AIDS cases among females. In fact, while it’s alarming that the rate of developing HIV/AIDS among African-American men is eight times higher than for white men, it’s absolutely devastating that the rate is 25 times higher for African-American women than for their white sisters. It’s our disease now.
Yet, it is my life as a preacher, and as pastor of St. Andrew A.M.E. Church, that compels me to encourage African Americans to embrace meaningful, substantive, practical approaches to HIV/AIDS. Those statistics reflect a longstanding, troubling combination of apathy, denial, hopelessness, distrust of public health and the health care system, and disinvestment in the holistic health of inner-city residents – despite the promise and progress being made by initiatives such as the Ryan White Program, which offers free, primary medical and support services to people living with HIV/AIDS. So, while I’ve worked to make the systems that serve us more accessible and culturally competent, I also call upon the Black Church – our family’s “healing place” – to step up. In the end, nobody can deal with this “family business” like the church.
A major problem – which is often understated – is that the Black Church has not wholeheartedly embraced this challenge. There are at least four reasons for that.
First, while being socially liberal, African-American clergypersons generally follow a theologically conservative application of scripture. Our preachers have struggled with the tension between condemning the sin and addressing the disease.