PHILADELPHIA — Pastor Alyn Waller of Enon Baptist Tabernacle is no stranger to addressing HIV in the church setting.
Since 2006, the church has been offering HIV testing and a support group for individuals infected and affected by HIV. In March of 2006, Enon hosted a HIV testing event where 1,000 people were tested in one day. At Enon, it’s common to hear about the issue of HIV.
“We speak about HIV and AIDS consistently because we are not afraid of the sex talk,” Waller said. “It’s not unheard of to hear me teaching or preaching about sexuality in general.”
Enon Tabernacle was one of 100 churches and mosques that participated in a city-wide campaign that kicked off in November to help combat the rising rates of HIV within the black community by encouraging people to get tested. During the campaign some churches preached on the issue while others disseminated information about the disease.
“We have been involved with HIV issues for some time so when the opportunity came up to do something across the city with other clergy we just felt it was consistent with what we are already doing,” Waller said of Enon’s participation.
The campaign was coordinated by the Interfaith Health Action Alliance of Philadelphia, which is a coalition of faith-based organizations that seek to reduce health disparities in Philadelphia, particularly HIV/AIDS disparities.
IHAAP evolved after Amy Nunn, research professor of medicine at Brown University, approached Rev. Marguerite E. Handy, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives with a proposal to engage churches and mosques. The campaign comes at a time when African Americans make up 64 percent of the new HIV infections in Philadelphia.
Waller gave various reasons why the faith-based community should be engaged around the issue of HIV.
“The church is supposed to be the heart of Christ and if Christ were here, this would be on his agenda,” Waller said. “Dr. Martin Luther King once said in the 1940s if you were a Christian living in Europe you should have stood up and said, ‘I am a Jew’ because of what Hitler was doing to the Jews. If you were a Christian in America in the 1950s and the 1960s, you should have stood up and said, ‘I am a Negro’ because of the fight for civil rights,” he recounted.
“If you are a Christian today, you should stand up and say, ‘I am HIV positive’ because of the challenges that are facing people who are HIV positive and because of the work that is yet to be done, talk about how the disease is transmitted and how we can protect people from it.”
Waller said the church can play a role in challenging pharmaceutical companies to make it affordable to be treated and that the church is best suited to address HIV-related stigma.
“So many people don’t want to get tested. They don’t want to talk about the disease because of the stigma that comes with the disease,” he said.
“For me, the concept of marching in Dr. Martin Luther King’s philosophical world view informs our understanding on how we get tested. If all of us go and get tested then there is no stigma in the room,” Waller said. “We are covering our brothers and sisters in grace by submitting to tests without letting them be in the room by themselves.”
Enon was one of 20 churches to offer HIV testing during the campaign. Waller said approximately 130 people were tested at Enon.
While Waller may be willing to openly address HIV issues, some religious leaders are reluctant to talk about it.
Rafiyq Friend, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, acknowledged that there are challenges in getting area Muslim leaders to address the issue. Many Muslim leaders are reluctant to talk about HIV because of their religious doctrine.
“Theologically we believe in certain moral positions (around) adultery, fornication — mostly illicit sexual activity,” said Friend, who was instrumental in encouraging five mosques to participate in the campaign.
While participating mosques disseminated literature about HIV, they did not host testing events.
“To get the Muslims to talk about it in the congregations has been the biggest challenge,” Friend said.
“This distribution of the literature is where we’ve had the most success at, but to get them to really bring it to the congregation like the churches have done, we’ve not had that much success in that area.”
Friend is hopeful that the mosques will start doing more around HIV awareness as leaders begin to become more comfortable talking about the issue.
“I think in Muslim doctrine there is a misconception in what a Muslim does and does not do. We are a part of the social makeup of America. We are subjected to the same social behaviors of Americans,” Friend said.
“We have a responsibility and the responsibility is to help eradicate some of these social ills that are affecting the community.”
Nunn says the response has been overwhelming by the faith-based community.
“I think both churches and mosques have participated in ways that are unprecedented and not only in Philadelphia but also nationwide,” said Nunn.
“The way I look at this campaign is, it’s just the beginning. I think this was a way to start city-wide dialogue and conversation and I really hope that moving forward, we’ll be able to do so much more.”
“I looked at this as proof of concept,” Nunn said, noting that many thought the initiative would be impossible to put in place.
“I think now we have demonstrated that there is interest and that it is possible. I would certainly like, and I think that a lot of people would like to sustain this effort in a meaningful way,” she said.
While they are still in the process of tabulating the official numbers of actual HIV tests conducted at participating churches, Nunn anticipates there wasn’t a huge demand for the testing.
“We had some churches that had testing, but it didn’t have a lot of volume. If you don’t pair the testing with preaching to stimulate the demand and interest for it to really highlight the importance of testing, you don’t really get a lot of people turning out for testing. That’s a lesson that we’ve learned from this,” she added.
The Philadelphia Tribune