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D.C.'s Black Churches Take Steps In AIDS Fight

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As thousands gather in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS Conference, the city is battling disturbing levels of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the black community.

According to the D.C. Department of Health, 4.3 percent of the black population in the city is living with the disease, and some advocates argue that black churches should be doing more to fight it.

In Northeast Washington on Sunday, more than 30 people lined up outside a brightly painted van, waiting to take an HIV test. As those waiting filled out consent forms, volunteers staffed a table laden with male and female condoms, pamphlets and lollipops.

The van belongs to the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church. Katitia Pitts, who runs the HIV/AIDS ministry at the church, says it is finding positive ways to get people to protect themselves. Pitts says even if the church and those who need help don't agree on every biblical doctrine, her ministry turns no one away.

"No matter who you sleep with," she says, "we don't want you to contract this virus."

Bishop Alfred Owen began one of the first HIV ministries in the city back in 1990. On Sunday, on the heels of inviting dozens of young congregants down to the front and begging them to protect themselves with condoms and to get tested, he also preached against homosexuality.

"According to the Bible I believe in ... God is not pleased," he told his congregants.

Long-time activist Pernessa Seele says the greatest challenge to battling the disease in many faith communities is that people still believe it is a homosexual disease.

"If they have a theological challenge with homosexuality it stops them from addressing the health challenge of this person," she says.

Seele is founder and CEO of The Balm in Gilead, an international nonprofit that has spent 23 years helping black churches find ways to effectively address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Seele says things have improved dramatically since the late 1980s, but some faith communities are still hung up on the behaviors they connect with the disease.

"[They think] 'We don't deal with people who have sex outside of marriage. We don't deal with drug addicts. We don't deal with marginalized people,' " she says.

Even at churches with programs to help those battling HIV/AIDS, such as Israel Baptist in Northeast Washington, there are challenges in reaching those with the disease.

"If the people with HIV had more concern about their faith and would participate in the churches ... then we could do more," the Rev. Morris Shearin says.

He says his church doesn't discriminate but it has lost government funding for its HIV/AIDS program and its health ministry, and it can't reassign funds needed for operation, educating youth and helping the people of Haiti.

The Rev. Jeffrey Haggray, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., agrees that HIV/AIDS afflicts the black community in a profound way, but says, "we're also afflicted by murder, crime; we suffer every ill disproportionately."

Haggray takes issue with critics who say the black church doesn't acknowledge the seriousness of HIV/AIDS in the community. He says most black churches don't have enough money to hire staff and support programs to help fight HIV/AIDS.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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