Black Churches Confront HIV-AIDS Crisis

In part one of our report on AIDS in the South among African-Americans, many said the stigma associated with the disease prevents people from talking openly and honestly. No where is that more clear than in the pulpit, but as CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston explains in part two, some churches are starting to begin the conversation.
The black church - traditionally a loud voice for social change - has been curiously silent on the crisis of AIDS in the African-American community, and some say, even negligent.

When Demarsh Tarver contracted AIDS in Alabama, he says his minister told him to pray for forgiveness.

"When I reached out to the church, I felt like I had been condemned because of my lifestyle," Tarver said. "I basically told him, in so many words, to go to hell."

Despite the fact that pastors across the south have offered small consolation to people infected with the virus, AIDS activists say they need black churches the help stem the growing tide of new HIV and AIDS cases.

While African-Americans represent 19 percent of the south's population, Pinkston reports they're 56 percent of new AIDS cases in the region.

It is an issue that the people of God must address, said Reverend Claude R. Alexander, Jr., of the University Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.

Alexander was one of the first to address the crisis from the pulpit.

"The church must step forward and clarify it as a disease like any other disease," Alexander said.

Speaking from the pulpit, ministers can frame attitudes of love and acceptance rather than judgment, said Reverend Deborah Warren of the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network.

To promote that change, Warren founded RAIN in 1992, to bring ministers together and try to change attitudes.

"If we're not willing to tell our members in our churches that being homophobic is a sin, then we're really shucking and jiving," said Reverend Clifford Matthews of St. Luke's Church.

But as Pinkston reports, they have to do that while still respecting and stepping delicately around core beliefs.

"In as much as we, particularly in our ministry, do not encourage unfaithfulness, that we call adultery or fornication, we're not going to change that particular principle," said minister Corey Bradley with the New Birth Church in Charlotte, N.C.

Slowly, African- American ministers are beginning to recognize the urgent need to take action on the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the black community. Some churches even offer periodic testing in the sanctuary, but getting people in the pews to buy into the message is another issue.

"When we have local agencies to provide testing on Sundays after services, the numbers of persons actually going in the room and getting tested have been very low," said Reverend Michelle Jones of the Friendship Baptist Church.

In the five years that Friendship Baptist has offered on-site services, Jones says only 50 to 60 church members have been tested for HIV at church.

"Well, it's better than nothing," Jones said. "Optimism is very important with this ministry."

Unfortunately, it's an optimism that is still only shared by a handful of religious leaders here. Out of nearly 700 houses of worship in Charlotte alone, only 75 have joined the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network.