Leaders at AIDS conference say Black churches must do more in the fight against HIV
BY GEORGE E. CURRY
DURBAN, South Africa – The Rev. Edwin C. Sanders, II, sized up his audience at the 21st International AIDS Conference last month and uttered instructions one wouldn’t normally expect to hear from a minister.
“Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘Sex,’” he said, catching delegates to the conference off guard. But after a couple of seconds of nervous hesitation, they complied.
“Now say, ‘Good sex.’”
“And lots of it.”
There was laughter after each instruction, which Sanders interpreted as discomfort. He said the discomfort of discussing that three-letter word – sex – hampers the religious community from more actively addressing the global HIV crisis.
Sanders, senior servant at Metropolitan International Church in Nashville, Tenn., has been at the forefront of trying to persuade the faith community to take the lead in combatting HIV.
‘Gift from God’
In an interview, Sanders said his brief exercise at the conference shows how uncomfortable people are discussing sex.
“It makes you realize how uncomfortable people are,” he explained. “Sex, for us, has been framed in such a negative fashion. It’s the no-no. It’s the wild thang. It’s nasty. Understand it’s a gift – it’s a gift from God.”
To prove his point, Sanders pointed to the Bible.
“In the Bible, the best evidence of that is the old covenant God makes with Abraham,” he said.
“After all, He says, ‘I will give you descendants that will number more than the sand by the sea and the stars in the sky.’ That’s a lot of sex. You don’t get descendants without procreation.”
He understands that people more are accustomed to getting their sexual advice from Dr. Phil than from the minister they see in church every Sunday.
“People are not used to hearing the language of sexuality in church,” Sanders said. “But you cannot talk about the Bible and not talk about sexuality.”
HIV a punishment?
Duane Crumb, director of HIV Hope International, told one session that for all of its talk about forgiveness of acceptance, the church can be one of the least accepting places for people with HIV or AIDS.
Many see the Black church as having a special responsibility, given the disproportionate impact HIV/AIDS has on African-Americans.
Although African-Americans represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 44 percent of new HIV infections and 44 percent of people living with HIV in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are some who view HIV as punishment for disobeying what they perceive as God’s instructions. They point to Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” and Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
Religious and rigid
But others view that as a selective reading of the Bible.
For example, upworthy.com observes, “Yep. We’ve all heard that Leviticus is where the Bible straight-up says that homosexual behavior is an abomination. And yes, it does. It also says that homosexuals should receive the death penalty (!!!). It also says the same thing about eating pork or shellfish, charging interest on loans, and a whole bunch of other restrictions that were a part of the Old Testament Law Code.
“But for Christians, the Old Testament doesn’t (dare I say “shouldn’t?”) settle any issue because Romans 10:4 says that Christ is the end of the law. Which is probably why most Christians today eat meat, use credit cards, wear makeup, and support equality for women. Because, as Hebrews 8:13 says, the old law is obsolete and aging.”
Dueling interpretations of the Bible notwithstanding, there is no question that African-Americans are extremely religious.
A Pew Foundation study found, “African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation.”
It explained, “…nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79 percent) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72 percent) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45 percent of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16 percent).”
There are some signs that the Black church is becoming more involved. For example, the NAACP declared July 17 as the Day of Unity whereby pastors across the U.S. preached on HIV as a social justice issue.
Jesse Milan, Jr., interim president and CEO of AIDS United and a former board chair of the Black AIDS Institute, said the Black church could do more. He said the church is very good about praying for and laying hands on members diagnosed with diabetes or cardiovascular disease, but has exemplified an unwillingness to show similar expression of support for those with HIV or AIDS.
Grounded in traditions
In a conversation with Sanders at a Black AIDS Institute forum at the AIDS Conference last month in South Africa, Milan said: “If we don’t actually blurt out those words when we’re doing that call, whether it’s an altar call or prayer, we’re not actually doing everything we can.”
To do everything it can, Sanders said, the church must not remain stuck in the Old Testament teachings.
“In our churches, we probably have been more conservative, in many instances, in the way in which we have approached social issues,” he stated.
“We have not been as effective in translating 1st-century text into 21st-century realities. What often gets in the way of being able to move forward around complex issues is that we are still grounded in traditions that are past and gone.”