When the Rev. Bernard Smith started offering HIV screenings on church premises, the stigma of the disease followed him to his pulpit.
"People would call you the AIDS preacher," the Largo pastor said. "But I wasn't interested, and listened to a higher power."
But after seven years and after hundreds of people entered his sanctuary to get tested for the virus, more people are listening to what Smith preaches. In fact, churches across the state are following his lead, launching a joint initiative between the state Department of Health and the African Methodist Episcopal Church to establish at least one AIDS testing site in a place of worship in every county.
In Volusia County alone, 12 churches have signed up to do testing. In Orange County, an Oakland church is hoping to become a site. In Polk County, a site in Winter Haven is set to start testing at the end of the summer.
James O. Williams Sr., one of the regional leaders of the AME church, said that his community can't hide from the disease that has affected a disproportionate number of blacks: Last year in Florida, blacks made up 54 percent of the AIDS cases reported, but just 14 percent of the population, according to the state health department.
"In the past it's been standoffish as far as the churches are concerned," he said. "But these are our family members, and the church should be part of the healing process."
Now, church leaders say people have to look past the stigma that links AIDS to drug use and homosexuality and understand that everyone is at risk. The disease is the top cause of death among black men and women from 25 to 44 years old, according to the state health department.
Street talk in church
And so, on Saturday, Williams found himself at a testing training session, discussing street terms for sex and drugs, along with volunteers such as Harriett Nelson, a 59-year-old church member who is more accustomed to organizing choirs and senior-citizen aerobics classes than talking about condoms.
Nelson, who said she got involved because she has family members with the disease, found herself laughing as volunteers practiced saying some less-than-polite words so they wouldn't be shocked when people said them during actual counseling sessions.
"That was pretty different," she said after the training in the basement of New Bethel AME Church in Ormond Beach. "But these are the real facts. We do need to be familiar with the slang words."
Nelson could begin testing at her church, Mount Zion AME in Daytona Beach, within a month.
Reaching beyond clinics
For years, AIDS outreach workers have tried to offer AIDS testing in environments outside of sterile and impersonal health clinics.
"African-Americans were not exactly breaking down the doors of the health department to be HIV-tested," said Mellita Mills-Kendrick, a regional AIDS coordinator for the state.
Polk County health workers have set up shop in laundromats, convenience stores and beauty salons, launching a campaign several years ago to train beauticians as outreach workers. The Daytona Beach-based Stewart-Marchman Foundation teams with restaurants to offer coupons for free meals to people who agree to have their cheeks swabbed for the test.
The disease's spread has slowed, but with medical advances people are living longer.
"We're dealing with three generations of people now that are impacted by HIV/AIDS," said the Rev. Ronald Weatherford, who co-authored Somebody's Knocking at Your Door: AIDS and the African-American Church. "For the mainstream churches it is just now becoming something that they are willing to do."
A growing trend
AIDS is becoming a part of religious life at black churches across the country.
According to The Balm in Gilead, a Virginia-based group that has fought AIDS for nearly 20 years, churches that offer AIDS and HIV outreach now number in the thousands. A growing number, said the Rev. Makeba D'Abreu, director of the group's domestic program, are offering on-site testing.
Recently, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, took an AIDS test in front of churchgoers.
Warnock has been targeting what he calls the unholy trinity of silence, shame and stigma.
"Stigma has to do with culture and values," he said. "Ministers can do more to undermine the stigma piece than anybody else."
That unholy trinity has been fading at Smith's church, Green's Chapel AME, where HIV testing continues, and where he says the congregation has "seen the light."
Rachael Jackson can be reached at email@example.com or 386-851-7923.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun