Saying they have been too silent for too long in the fight against HIV and AIDS, leaders of several Baltimore faith-based groups converted nearly a dozen churches Tuesday into places where people could be tested for the virus without fear of being stigmatized.
The JACQUES Initiative - a program at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine - launched Project SHALEM in partnership with the Maryland AIDS Administration and several local faith-based and community organizations. Shalem means "peace" or "a safe place" in the Christian, Islam and Jewish faiths.
"The ultimate goal is to make churches, mosques and synagogues a safe place where people can receive HIV support," said Derek Spencer, the executive director of the JACQUES Initiative. "We are no longer going to wait for people to come into our academic centers for help," he said.
For Tuesday's event, 11 religious churches across the city converted their basements, kitchens and event rooms into testing sites, where more than 40 trained volunteers from Baltimore and other East Coast cities administered swab tests, which don't require needles or blood and provide results within 20 minutes.
Within the first hour, one of the testing sites had registered four positive tests, Spencer said, adding that organizers expected to reach their goal of testing 1,000 people.
Dr. Angela Wakhweya, deputy director of the Maryland AIDS Administration, said Project SHALEM's goal is to eliminate new HIV cases in the state.
"We're working with HIV-negative people to teach them how to stay negative," she said at a news conference at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Tuesday's testing sites. "[We're] encouraging those who are positive to get treatment and prevent the spread."
Juan Christian, diagnosed with HIV in 2002, is convinced that the faith-based approach is the best way to encourage community members to get tested, especially after learning that it's the most effective approach in much of Africa.
This observation inspired organizers to involve more churches in Baltimore, where Christian said there's a "church on every corner."