AIDS hits home in Baltimore's black congregations Congregations rally to meet challenge

Portrait of a black church in transition:

Three years ago, the members of Unity United Methodist Church had not been touched by AIDS and didn't think of it as a problem worth addressing.


In the last year, the church has buried five people who died from the disease, joined a fledgling organization called Churches United Against AIDS, and embraced a member who is HIV-positive.

"One of the things the church has to realize is that the mission of the church is not to the well, but to the sick," said the Rev. Norman Handy, Unity's pastor, who has prodded his Harlem Park congregation into its newfound activism.


Like Unity, other black churches in Baltimore are overcoming a deep reluctance to deal with the issue of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Even though many churches are located in areas plagued by drugs, violence and poverty, many churchgoers are middle-class people who have long left behind the neighborhoods -- and the problems -- surrounding their houses of worship. "When I first came here [in 1989], we had an older congregation which did not have any idea of outreach or social concern," Mr. Handy said.

Since then, attitudes about AIDS have been changing in the black religious community, touching congregations large and small. Once-wary ministers, pressed by church members and AIDS activists, are allowing outreach and education programs in their churches. Other pastors are speaking out. AIDS is becoming nearly impossible to ignore.

More than 1,200 black Baltimoreans have been diagnosed since 1988 as having AIDS, which has overtaken homicide as the leading cause of death among adults between 25 and 44. Even more alarming, between 8,000 to 16,000 black residents are believed to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which leads to AIDS. Blacks account for 79 percent of Baltimore's AIDS cases; virtually all the women and babies with the disease are black. Although drug use remains the major mode of transmission, the number of people contracting the virus through heterosexual intercourse is increasing.

"People are recognizing that it's just not an empty threat, that this thing is real," said Brenda Pridgen, who coordinates the city's AIDS programs. "Churches are now taking it upon themselves because they have been impacted, because they have had someone in their family or congregation who has been infected."

The devastation of AIDS presents a perplexing and challenging problem to the black churches. More than any other institution, the church serves as the community's prime meeting place. Two out of every three blacks in the Baltimore area belong to a church, polls show. Yet many churches tend to be conservative, not given to activism.

Dealing with AIDS required pastors and churchgoers to talk about sex, promiscuity, homosexuality and use of illicit drugs -- subjects that are usually taboo. And AIDS forced many churchgoers and religious leaders to re-examine the meaning of Christianity. Congregations were asked to see AIDS patients as people who were sick instead of dismissing them as junkies or prostitutes or homosexuals, sinners to be scorned.

"We have all this other baggage because AIDS came into our community through a group that we have tried to disconnect from," said Bernette Jones, who coordinates a teen program for the Urban League.

Perhaps hardest of all, confronting AIDS meant acknowledging that it could touch mainstream black Baltimore, including churchgoers, their friends and their relatives.


"There was a perception that we weren't going to be affected," said Ms. Jones. "It wasn't affecting us. So the people in the black community who could do something about it, the black church, the black community organizations, did not take the risk to do something."

To understand the extent of the community's denial, go back to 1987 when Ms. Pridgen, then a newcomer to Baltimore, tried to contact the city's black churches. Her group mailed 500 letters, offering to give seminars on HIV infection and AIDS. One church replied. The next year, the Rev. Wendell Phillips invited 300 churches to an AIDS workshop organized by his Heritage United Church of Christ. Only nine churches sent representatives.

Back then and still today, people are struggling to apply Jesus Christ's teachings to a complex, modern-day crisis. It is part of a process in which, as Mr. Handy said:

"The church picks up its dainty skirt and begins to address the dirt on its feet and the dirt on its shoes. I've been trying to address it because I understand that we all have dirty feet."

The minister recalled that three years ago, while he was helping to organize an AIDS symposium at Howard University, the religious community in southern Prince Georges' County was similarly reluctant to deal with AIDS.

"Nobody wanted to talk about it," he said. "We had a clergy association of 19 members, but nobody wanted to get involved with it, and they were underwriting the symposium with a $10,000 grant."


As long as the virus and its victims remained at a safe distance, the churches could remain detached. Yvonne Leacock, who coordinates AIDS outreach programs for Heritage, said people held fiercely to an attitude that proclaimed: "Not in my congregation. Not anybody I know."

But AIDS knows no boundaries.

"A lot of people have been in congregations and have been suffering for a long time," but they felt they couldn't tell anyone in their church, said David Horner, who has AIDS and is a churchgoer. "They felt they would be ostracized. Now we're finding that a foundation is being set where they can share their pain, go to a pastor and say: 'My cousin is suffering from AIDS. What can I do?' "

Or, as in the case of Paul Kelly, someone can stand up in church and announce that he is HIV-positive. Last December, Mr. Kelly did just that at a World AIDS Day healing service at Unity. After sharing his story, he read aloud the 40th Psalm, in which the Lord hears David's cry and draws him "out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp" to "put a new song" into his mouth.

The psalm aptly describes Mr. Kelly's life. A native of New York's tough South Bronx, he spent 23 years in the swamp of addiction, overcame his drug habit -- though not without a relapse -- and has gone on to lecture around the country about addiction therapy and HIV infection. He has been drug-free since September 1986.

He said World AIDS Day gave him a chance to show people the power of God, the strength that can be found in faith. When Mr. Kelly was diagnosed HIV-positive in March 1984, doctors gave him one year to live.


"I'd rather have people to know what I have, how I live with it and how I took what the world perceived to be a lemon and made lemonade out of it," he said of his announcement. "I'm not doing it for ego. I'm doing it to let other people know that they can self-disclose if they want to, that they can live with it."

Mr. Kelly said that most Unity members were surprised by his revelation. One woman, Blendie Buie, was moved into action. A state social worker, she has since offered to help in any way she can and wants to work closely with an AIDS family. For her, presentations and speeches by Mr. Kelly and Mr. Horner gave AIDS a human face.

"It just kind of hit home. I felt like they are my brothers," said Ms. Buie, who wants to be trained so she can give AIDS awareness seminars. "I feel for people when they are going through a crisis. You just can't separate yourself."

In addition to events like the World AIDS Day service at Unity, other churches are establishing referral services for people with AIDS and their families, providing spiritual counseling and visiting AIDS patients. Recently, about 250 people attended an AIDS healing service at Emmanuel Christian Community Church. Eric King, an associate minister at Emmanuel, approved of his church's involvement.

"The church has to be very visible in assisting the community," he said. "As the church becomes involved and shows compassion in helping people who are infected and families who are affected, we will be fulfilling our mission."

Despite the religious community's gradual awakening, some say the efforts to help people affected by AIDS are not enough, the pace of change too slow, the number of churches involved too few. About two dozen congregations are affiliated with Churches United Against AIDS, a small number for a community thick with churches. Other congregations, however, are involved in AIDS awareness without joining an organization.


"I think we're having a spiritual awakening. We have been 10 years behind with this HIV disease," said Mr. Kelly. "I think the churches are coming around because they can't keep hiding all the people who have been passing away in their churches."

Dealing effectively with Baltimore's AIDS problem requires more than a change of heart on the part of the religious community. The majority of blacks who are HIV-positive or have AIDS are drug addicts or are poor, people whom the church often cannot reach. Helping them means going into the city's alleys, grim shooting galleries, flesh markets and drug-ridden neighborhoods. That is what Ms. Pridgen and her city colleagues started doing in 1987. Known as the "AIDS-Busters," they carried brochures, condoms and bleaching kits for intravenous drug users.

Like other street outreach workers, they confronted an array of stubborn sociological and psychological obstacles. First, they had to understand the differences between their audience and the gay white men for whom most of the AIDS education practices were developed in the early to mid-1980s. Materials that worked well with white gays were often rejected in black neighborhoods.

"Throwing condoms at people and pamphlets, which for the lTC most part our population is not going to read," does not always work, said Ms. Pridgen. "You have to get down on the level where the people are."

Changing the approach could be as simple as putting a black face in a brochure or using street talk instead of clinical language. One booklet published by the Health Education Resource Organization (HERO) and aimed at teen-agers is called "Yo! Get to know about AIDS."

Damaris Richardson, HERO's minority outreach coordinator, said she often has to debunk myths and squelch rumors during her presentations. Recently, she was asked if people could catch the AIDS virus by eating red meat. An incorrect notion, but there was a logic at play. The virus is passed through blood. Red meat contains blood. Thus, in some curious way, fact met rumor.


Street workers also have to ease suspicions that AIDS is part of a government attempt to decimate the black community. The fears are part of an ever-present tension between some blacks and government agencies. Many blacks, for example, point to the Tuskegee Study in which several hundred black male syphilitics were monitored by federal health authorities. Even after the advent of penicillin, the study continued and the men were denied treatment. At least 28 of them died.

"People will say, 'The government lied to us once. So, why should we believe them and think that they're full of such good intentions? We firmly believe that it's a white disease and we don't have to worry,' " said Joyce Dennison of HERO, describing sentiments she has heard.

These concerns have combined to make AIDS education among blacks doubly difficult. The situation parallels public health campaigns aimed at drunken driving and cigarette smoking. As in those cases, possible death is not enough to make people change.

"It's unrealistic to think that all of a sudden people are going to make this quantum leap" and change their behavior, said Ms. Pridgen. "This kind of stuff is labor-intensive. It would behoove us not to expect instant results."

With so much information available, the problem now is to turn knowledge into action, to breach the last walls of resistance in the religious community, to somehow ensure that people get the information in the pamphlets and brochures and change their ways. Mr. Handy also thinks any overall plan must address the root causes of poverty, despair and drug addiction.

"However good the effort is, it cannot be divorced from a comprehensive, holistic effort," he said. "It has to begin with institutions in the community that have just gotten fed up and are ready to take radical steps, and I mean radical, to say: 'Because we are here, we have to do it. We can't wait.' "