Of all the city's neighborhoods, Upton/Druid Heights ranks lowest in life expectancy, with AIDS as the fourth-leading cause of death.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in the heart of the neighborhood, is well aware of the alarming statistics and is resolved to combat them. He is launching a three-night conference for singles, starting Monday, that will focus on sexual healing and health. No subject is off-limits, he said.
"It is time to begin a conversation about sex, a conversation in a church, in a sanctuary that is a safe place," he said. "There is nothing we cannot be healed from."
The pastor is offering his sanctuary, which can hold up to 1,300, for the "Sex in the City Singles Conference" and another space in the Druid Hill Avenue building for free, confidential HIV testing and counseling. He has promised that he and his wife will be among the first to be tested.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends screening for those ages 13 to 64 who are sexually active. Of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, about 20 percent of them are unaware of their status, according to the CDC. Treatment can reduce the death rate from the disease and lower the risk of transmission.
About 44 percent of new HIV cases in the U.S. annually are in the African-American community, said R&B singer Paula Campbell, who schooled herself on the statistics before participating in the conference. She lost one close friend to AIDS and is helping another cope with the disease.
"This conference will shed a light on this issue and let our community know we can do more," she said.
The event targets adults ages 18 to 35, but welcomes all singles, even teens with the consent of a parent.
"The only qualifying factor is that you have to be single," said FranShon Reid, the church's events coordinator and daughter of its pastor.
Participants will find information, counseling, gospel music, radio personalities, prayer and candid discussion. Frank Reid and the Rev. Jeffrey A. Johnson, an Indianapolis-based minister and author of "The Song of Solomon: Love, Sex and Relationships," will deliver much of the commentary.
"It is essential that this generation learn what it means to be single in a secular society and also how to move forward from any shame that might be attached to their sexual past," Reid said.
Guest speaker Juan Christian, who has been living with HIV for 10 years, said there is no more appropriate setting for the effort.
"The church shows us all there is a place to turn to with all the stuff you have in your closet," he said. "We are also bringing to the forefront that our city needs to be healed."
It is another step to clinical as well as spiritual healing, said FranShon Reid.
"Baltimore is at the epicenter of these diseases," she said, noting that the city has the fifth-highest HIV infection rate in the country. "People are having sex but not talking about sex. This conference will meet people where they are at and will address the high fallout from HIV and STDs."
Lisa Smith, a nursing assistant to several patients in the community, plans to attend.
"This is really needed here, where there is still stigma about disease," she said. "I hope to get my clients to come, but if not, I know I will have something to take back to them."
FranShon Reid made a promise to all those who attend: "You will leave here better," she said.
If you go
The free conference runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Free HIV testing will be available from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. all three days at the church, 1300 Druid Hill Ave. Information: 410-523-4273.