Black churches turn to face AIDS with compassion

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- When the Rev. J. Jerome Cooper came down from the pulpit to deliver a eulogy beside the casket of a 21-year-old parishioner, he had a confession to make.

The church, he said, had failed. Its deacons had refused to give communion to a dying man, and Mr. Cooper himself had washed his hands after every visit to the man's hospital bed.


From that day on, the pastor vowed, he would never again let the church discriminate against anyone suffering from AIDS.

"We do not have the privilege to decide who is part of the Kingdom and who is not part of the Kingdom," said Mr. Cooper, pastor of the predominantly black Berean Presbyterian Church in North Philadelphia. "That's God's area of judgment."


Mr. Cooper's confession, made four years ago, reflects a transformation not only in his own thinking but in that of a growing number of black clergy.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many black clergy viewed AIDS as God's revenge against homosexuality, which is a sin in their theologically conservative congregations. Today, some of those same ministers are throwing sympathetic arms around those infected with the AIDS virus.

"The black church is now willing to see AIDS as a human disease and not as a divine damnation," said C. Eric Lincoln, a black sociologist at Duke University and author of a 1990 book on the black church. "When AIDS was looked upon as being purely a homosexual affliction or as pay-back for drug abusers, that meant hands off as much as possible."

Mr. Cooper's change of heart has gone far beyond his pulpit. Today, he heads a group of 15 black churches in North Philadelphia who minister to those with AIDS and educate members of the black community about the disease.

The outreach includes frank discussions about AIDS in Sunday school classes and a respite care program for families with children suffering from AIDS.

"We recognize that everyone in our community is at risk," said Elizabeth A. Minor, director of the Ecumenical Information AIDS Resource Center, the interfaith group formed by Mr. Cooper.

She promotes a message of tolerance in the form of a button that reads "God Is Greater Than HIV," a reference to the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.

The increasing willingness of the black church to deal with the AIDS epidemic has been spurred by the growing number of blacks diagnosed with the incurable disease.


For black clergy, who are conducting more funerals for AIDS victims among their own congregations, the numbers have taken on a painfully human face.

"Over the past few years, I've done a number of funerals for people with AIDS," said the Rev. Albert F. Campbell, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. "There have been increasing numbers of people coming to me to talk about AIDS in their families or among people they know."

In response, Mr. Campbell conducted a two-day workshop on AIDS in June. This fall, he hopes to sponsor a neighborhood "summit" on AIDS among black churches throughout West Philadelphia, which has a high incidence of AIDS.

"We hope to start a quiet revolution among the black churches that are most heavily impacted," Mr.Campbell said.

A decade ago, such talk was unheard of. Then, people with AIDS were condemned or ignored by many churches. Some refused to let those who were infected worship in their sanctuaries. Others refused to do their funerals.

"Ten years ago, you probably could not have gotten a significant number of pastors to even discuss the issue publicly," said the Rev. William B. Moore, pastor of the Tenth Memorial Baptist Church in North Philadelphia and a leader among the city's black clergy. "It was a kind of secret issue among many churches."


In recent years, however, black clergy have held workshops to educate themselves about AIDS. They have delivered sympathetic sermons, held prayer vigils, sponsored HIV-screening clinics and raised money for AIDS organizations.

Such efforts are important because the church is the most powerful black-controlled institution in the black community, where it is a potent political force and moral beacon.

Theologically, the black church has maintained its traditional stance that the practice of homosexuality is a sin. But more ministers stress that it's possible to love the sinner while condemning the sin. And Jesus, they point out, spent his entire life ministering to the outcast.