BLACK AIDS MINISTRIES
More than 23 years after the onset of the AIDS epidemic, black congregations are softening their attitudes about the virus to a point.
BY ANDREA ROBINSON
As a young adult, Lisa Sheffield left her Liberty City church and fell into a life of drugs, booze and indiscriminate sex to support her habit. She eventually found her way back sober, in a lesbian relationship and carrying HIV.
But the comfort and caring she knew in her youth at the Church of the Incarnation, Sheffield said, turned into whispers about her health and edicts that she not touch food served following services. Last year, she left for Sellers United Methodist Church, a place that through its message and its practices she felt was more receptive to people infected with the human immune deficiency virus, which causes AIDS.
In 1997, Robert Allen, who has AIDS, and his then-fiancée, who doesn't have the virus, rushed out of a Bible study class at Bible Baptist Church in Northwest Miami-Dade because of the chatter. The idea of a man with the virus marrying a woman who didn't did not sit well with some members.
"We were literally run out of church. The talk was so offensive we couldn't stay in there," Allen said.
But rather than walk away from their church, Allen and his wife, Patricia, started a ministry that has helped their church and others in the area become more welcoming.
Sheffield and Allen are examples of how blacks with HIV or AIDS acquired immune deficiency syndrome must struggle to reconcile their physical ailments with their spiritual needs.
Twenty-three years after the AIDS epidemic started, black churches, which are a vital anchor in the lives of many blacks, are much less hostile to people with HIV/AIDS. But as the national Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS begins today it is still an issue that causes discomfort and tension.
"They won't hug you the same way as they would others," said Sheffield, her fists tightening as she grappled to find the words. "You can pick up the vibes."
This week dozens of congregations in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties will join thousands more around the United States in hosting workshops, prayer vigils and health screenings to raise awareness about the virus that heavily affects American blacks. Judging by the number of participating churches, ministers and by extension, their congregations may be softening in their attitudes toward HIV-infected people. The organization that spearheads the observance, New York-based Balm in Gilead, says that more than 15,000 congregations have signed on this year. When the group started the observance 15 years ago, 50 churches and mosques in the Harlem area participated.
Churches "have improved on the way they accept people with AIDS," said Gloria Scott, coordinator of Broward County-based Churches United to Stop HIV. "When the leader shows compassionate love, the members show it."
Through the CUSH program, Scott trains church leaders and lay people to set up AIDS ministries that can offer education or support services to clients and their families. She also tries to link people who are HIV-positive and may be disconnected from their own churches with congregations that have HIV or health ministries.
The Rev. Clarence Brownlee, assistant minister and director of AIDS outreach at Our God Reigns Ministries in Northwest Miami-Dade, may be best positioned to testify to improvements within the ecumenical community.
He received a diagnosis of HIV infection 17 years ago, during a time when "to have a conversation with a black pastor who had the virus was not possible."
Brownlee grew up in the conservative Holiness denomination and remained involved in churches after his diagnosis. But he kept quiet about his status for five years to protect his young family from ostracism.
"At that time people looked down on you especially a lot of Christians," he said.
Now that Brownlee has gone public, "it's easy for me to ring the bell as a pastor who's [HIV] positive."
Still, not everyone has found it easy to establish AIDS ministries. The Rev. Tommie Watkins said he got a cool reception last year when he raised the idea with the Rev. Kenneth Major, the senior minister at Church of the Incarnation.
"Father Major said he didn't think the congregation was ready for a ministry," Watkins said, recounting the conversation. Watkins left that church for predominantly white St. Stephens Episcopal in Coconut Grove, which has a large AIDS ministry. Major declined to speak with a Herald reporter, and through an assistant referred calls to the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.
Mary Cox, communications director for the diocese, said several congregations have AIDS ministries. However, she said, "I'm not aware of any black churches that specifically have an AIDS ministry. Nobody has mentioned it."
At Bible Baptist church, Allen started a ministry that combines AIDS education with dramatic skits, puppet shows and rap lyrics to combat what he calls the four demons associated with the virus: fear, denial, silence and ignorance.
"I want my people educated so they won't treat [HIV-positive] people the way they do," Allen said. In five years, he has taken his show to more than 80 schools and churches.
"People with AIDS are this millennium's lepers. The lepers of Jesus' day were shunned and set aside," Allen said. "Today it's the same thing. The church wants to shun and push them away." Today, Allen's church embraces his ministry, he said, and members who criticized his marriage apologized.
The Rev. Marilyn Hardy, director of an Episcopal AIDS ministry based near downtown Miami, said she has counseled several people who decided not to bother with attending church because of what they perceive as rejection of those who are infected.
"A lot of African-American men and women have decied they'd rather not go at all, or they will sit in front of the television and watch the televangelist," Hardy said.
Sheffield did that for awhile, then she got the courage to return to her family church. But when she showed up with her partner, Tammy Mead, the bad vibes she picked up became stronger. After a year, she left for Seller's United Methodist.
Sheffield felt comfortable there because the church has an AIDS ministry and the minister mentions HIV in his sermons. Ironically, dealing with AIDS has strengthened Sheffield's spirituality.
"This is no shame," she said. "God made me. He doesn't make junk."