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In 'Day of Unity,' black churches offer HIV testing, services

Minister Aaron Davis, right, and his wife, Minister Deborah Ivory, center right, prepare for an HIV test in front of their Douglas Memorial Community Church congregation during a "Day of Unity" at the Sunday service.
Minister Aaron Davis, right, and his wife, Minister Deborah Ivory, center right, prepare for an HIV test in front of their Douglas Memorial Community Church congregation during a "Day of Unity" at the Sunday service. (Colin Campbell/The Baltimore Sun)

Aaron Davis and Deborah Ivory stepped to the front of Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore as the music played during the Sunday morning service and extended their hands.

A pinprick later, the two ministers had been tested for HIV and Hepatitis C — in an unconventional public demonstration to show those in the pews the quickness, ease and importance of the process.

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Free testing was offered in the church basement following the service.

Douglas and about 120 black churches across the country held a "Day of Unity" Sunday, using the pulpit to urge people to get tested and connecting those who are HIV-positive with services.

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The event was part of the NAACP's six-year-old social justice program, "The Black Church and HIV," which highlights the disease's glaring racial disparity: While African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up nearly half of those diagnosed with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

The Rev. S. Todd Yeary, the church's pastor, said the church has long stigmatized the disease due to its prevalence in the gay community. He called it "one area where the church tends to be the most judgmental."

He read from the Gospel of Luke: "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you."

Jesus, Yeary noted, spent his days ministering to lepers and other social outcasts.

"We all have dysfunction; we don't have time to be judgmental," he said. "This is not about lifestyle. It's about health."

Davis, who lives in Catonsville and works at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said ministers have a responsibility to emphasize the importance of being tested. He compared it to "preventative maintenance" on a car.

"Lead by example, right?" he said.

Terri Powell, a Douglas member who is an assistant professor of population, families and reproductive health at the Johns Hopkins University, coordinated the testing demonstration.

"I think it is a powerful image," she said. "For a leader to stop the service and dedicate 15, 20 minutes to a demonstration in the pulpit really shows he prioritizes this health issue."

Sunday's event was an example of the church's commitment to social action, Powell said.

"There is no judgment," she said. "This is a health issue, not a moral issue. … It's not a sin to be sick. Jesus called us to help."

If the church ignores serious problems plaguing its congregation, Yeary said, it loses all credibility.

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"If you're going to be about justice, you can't talk about justice on the outside and perpetuate injustice on the inside," he said. "Institutionally, we've still got a lot of work to do."

Angela and Gregory Snead, a Pikesville couple who have been Douglas members since 2003, waited for their turns to be tested after the service.

"It's right here, right now, you're in the place already, [might as well] get it done," said Gregory Snead, 70. "Nothing wrong with getting checked."

Witnessing the ministers get tested in full view of the century-old church helped make it relatable for the rest of the congregation, Angela Snead said.

"It was a powerful message," she said.

The ministers' results were not shared with the congregation.

A church might be an unusual place for an HIV test, said Iyana Wakefield, 34, the Douglas church band's singer. But it provides access in a less clinical setting for members who might not otherwise get tested.

The tone of the service reflected a societal change in rhetoric, she said.

"It was not a condemnation speech," she said. "It was, 'Listen, I want you to be healthy. God wants you to be healthy.'"

Roger Grier, 80, of West Baltimore, also waited for his finger prick after the service. He said testing was a "beautiful" thing for the church to do.

"It makes the church a leader in the community," he said.

Powell, the Hopkins professor, said the church has recognized that silence and stigma have left its community disadvantaged when it comes to issues such as HIV.

Sunday's event, she said, creates an atmosphere of positive peer pressure and encourages institutions to take a stand on HIV and other controversial issues.

"Faith and love are action words," Powell said. "It's not just something you feel, it's something you do."

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