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Black church leads fight against AIDS with HIV testing

By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — It’s been three decades since HIV and AIDS invaded Chicago’s South Side and surrounded Bray Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Englewood. But it’s been less than three years since the little church on the corner of 73rd and Greenwood did anything to address the epidemic.

That’s when the Rev. Dorothy Williams arrived and made a change. As a female pastor in the black church, she already had confronted plenty of discouragement. But as a crusader who believes the church should work to stop the spread of HIV in the African-American community, she faced straight-up resistance.

With some trepidation, the elders at Bray have embraced her mission. The church offers periodic HIV testing, and some who have tested positive have sought the pastor’s advice on treatment.

The only challenge the congregation can’t seem to surmount is whether to distribute condoms. Williams preaches abstinence. But she’s no dummy. She knows people, including many of her aging and widowed members, are having sex.

“Older people, they find someone and bada boom, the beat goes on,” she said. “A lot of churches are still not open to that ministry. It’s in your face and very personal. It tends to probe into your business. Some of these things people want to keep personal at the cost of hindering people around (them).”

Like many clergy, especially in the African-American community where HIV continues to take the greatest toll, Williams said she feels torn between her call to preserve the integrity of Scripture and the need to protect the people in the pews. While she knows she must preach abstinence until matrimony, she doesn’t want to let her flock down and put others in danger by denying what goes on behind closed doors. Ignoring a threat that she knows looms large in the community seems almost as sinful as sex before marriage, Williams said.

“The church sometimes talks a dual language,” she said. “It defends itself theologically. We should be abstinent until God unites us with a husband or wife. But then how do we expect our young folk to be abstinent when we were young one time and risky as well?”

“A considerable portion of me now still struggles with that,” she continued. “Are we talking the right language? We’re looking at saving lives. We’re looking at saving souls too.”

The Rev. Doris Green, director of correctional health and community relations for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said she also once struggled to reconcile the contradictory calls when she first undertook HIV/AIDS ministry 15 years ago. The rising numbers of HIV diagnoses in the black community have convinced her that preaching only abstinence simply does more harm than good.

“I see the devastation in our communities,” she said. “If it had worked, I would be with them. I don’t see it working.”

Green is grateful to many of the larger African-American churches such as Trinity United Church of Christ and New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church for funding HIV/AIDS ministries and setting an example that helps lift the stigma of the disease in the black church community. But she said smaller storefront and corner churches in neighborhoods such as Englewood are as important, if not more so, because they offer a rare safe haven in highly infected areas.

According to the most recent data from the Chicago Department of Public Health, which has tracked the number of city residents living with HIV through 2009, African-Americans have an AIDS case rate four times greater than the city’s white population. Washington Park, South Shore, West Englewood and Uptown neighborhoods have the highest HIV infection rates, according to the agency’s most recent report. Bray is at the heart.

“This church is one of the real ambassadors in one of the hardest-hit communities,” Green said. “The small struggling churches need to be empowered with information and want to do the work.”

For Williams, the scariest statistic is the projection that someone is infected every 9 ½ minutes, which is why it makes sense to preach responsibility. She’s not sure that means the church should provide condoms, a topic still up for discussion among the wider congregation.

This month, the city of Chicago rolled out a new initiative to distribute 10 million condoms through non-traditional venues such as dry cleaners and beauty shops. Of the hundreds of venues, only 10 churches and faith-based organizations have accepted funding and volunteered to make condoms available.

Green said many churches have found creative ways to meet the need. Some pastors have put out candy dishes with a mixture of Jolly Ranchers, Starlight Mints and condoms. The condoms are always gone first, she said.

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