Today, February 7th, is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. This commentary by Rev. Jeremiah Wright is the fifth post in a series featuring prominent African-American leaders on HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, coordinated by the Black AIDS Institute and the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Check back each week for the next piece in the series!
Until the government is willing to spend as much money on AIDS and education as it does on searching for Osama bin Laden, then I'm going to keep preaching what I'm preaching.
The United States has promised money for the AIDS pandemic that the United Nations has called the world’s worst health crisis. But the United States won’t deliver any money unless the country, the program, the people or the recipients of the U.S. aid subscribe to the insane policy of “abstinence only!”
We are still fixated on who is sleeping with whom while people are dying like flies! As soon as you are willing to develop every child's brain instead of destroying Saddam Hussein, then I'm going to keep preaching what I'm preaching.
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“Herman,” our first congregation member to die of AIDS, had me over to his home to confide in me about his condition. We sat in his three-story home with nothing left but the carpet on the floor. His wife had packed up the children and all of their belongings while he was at work and left him with nothing in the home but his carpet. She did not want to be around him, nor did she want their children around him because he had AIDS. “Herman” said to me: “Nobody should have to die like this, Rev!” I knew in my heart and mind from that day that our church had to do something about AIDS. He was absolutely right. He is still right! I made up in my mind on that day that no person in our congregation who was living with AIDS would ever die like that again.
The United Church of Christ has been the “whipping boy” for the conservative, right-wing press and public when it decided to ordain homosexuals into the Christian ministry, so I was not concerned about the stigma an AIDS Ministry might bring on our congregation. I don’t do the ministry, however, to what the public thinks or the press thinks. I do ministry, and we do ministry as a congregation because of what the Prince of Peace thinks!
The black community was slow to respond to the epidemic that has swept across this country for over a quarter of a century because the epidemic was branded as a White-male homosexual disease. And because many black Christian families believe in their heart of hearts that AIDS is God’s curse upon the homosexual, those churches and the larger community were slow to respond. Homosexuals were seen as “outside of the veil” of the black community. We are doing a little bit better now. We are doing less than one percent of what we could be doing. But the response is much better especially since the pandemic has begun to affect heterosexual African-American females. If we’re going to catch up, I think the religious community needs to do several things.
First, it needs to educate its pastors and its congregations that the reality of HIV/AIDS is a biological problem, not a theological problem. It is a medical issue, not a moral issue. The religious community needs to make that message loud and clear across denominational lines.
The religious community needs to stamp out ignorance among its constituents and help the public come to grips with how this disease is transmitted. The religious community also needs to hold workshops and teach-ins with its members of all ages, even its seniors about sexually transmitted diseases and how HIV/AIDS is spread. One of the T-shirts that I saw back in the 1980s says it all: “HIV/AIDS is spread three ways: By blood, by semen and by ignorance!” It also needs to teach preventive measures to cut down on the incidence of persons becoming infected. Further, congregations need to form HIV/AIDS ministries to serve families of people who are infected. And finally, the religious community needs to lobby the political realm just as it did back in the civil rights movement. It needs to lobby politicians to get the laws changed so that the poor and the needy can have access to anti-retroviral drugs at generic prices. Not everybody can afford the medications that Magic Johnson can afford! Until the religious community lobbies those senators who are in bed with the pharmaceutical companies to change those laws, then it is not doing what it did back in the civil rights days, when religious leaders lobbied the politicians to change the laws that kept people locked out of access to full participation in the American society.
God loves everybody. God says everyone who believes in God’s Son shall have everlasting life. That includes people with HIV/AIDS, heterosexuals and homosexuals; therefore, our theological approach comes straight from the Bible. Our church has had an HIV/AIDS Ministry since the beginning of the epidemic. We train people who volunteer to work with this ministry before we turn them loose to work with families and individuals who are living with AIDS. Our training includes classes led by an epidemiologist, the Chicago Board of Health, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and chaplains who work with people living with HIV/AIDS. We run a halfway house and we provide medications and minister to families who are affected and infected. And we help people learn about and take advantage of every social service that is available to them. We also have annual seminars and workshops on safe sex. We have a Teenage Sexuality Ministry in our church and sex is a constant discussion when it comes to the educational ministry of the church. We talk about it right from the pulpit.