NEW YORK — A collective of Black church leaders called upon the U.S. government Tuesday to declare HIV/AIDS crisis in the African American community a "public health emergency" and introduced legislation that would address the epidemic.
Following a two-day conclave, over 150 African American leaders proposed the National HIV/AIDS Elimination Act, which they plan to introduce to Congress as early as January. The act calls on the federal government "to declare the HIV/AIDS Crisis in the African American community a 'public health emergency'" and urges "the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use his emergency authority to redirect resources to address this emergency."
African Americans account for over half of the new HIV/AIDS cases in America, according to a 2000 Census report. AIDS is the number one cause of death for black women, ages 25-34. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported in 2005 that black men were diagnosed with the disease at a rate eight times that of white men, while black women were diagnosed at a rate almost 23 times that of white women.
"We are the face of HIV/AIDS in this country," said Donna Christian-Christensen, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, who accepted the invitation to support legislation.
The recent conclave, hosted by The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, marked the first time African American leaders from all sectors – including clergy, scholars, government and health agencies – convened to develop a plan toward ending HIV/AIDS in Black America.
Prominent black ministers, including megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House, pledged that the Church will play its role in bringing awareness and promoting testing of HIV/AIDS to the faith community.
"Just as African-American clergy fervently came together 50 years ago to fight for civil rights, we are banding together today to bring an end to HIV/AIDS and its potential to obliterate our community,'' said Jakes, who co-chaired the conclave.
The Church will use the pulpit as a platform for awareness and encourage its congregants to only stand behind Congress members seeking office who have HIV/AIDS as a primary concern, added the megachurch pastor.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, chair of the NBLCA and senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, noted that many people may hold the misconception that the Church and clergy have not addressed the HIV/AIDS issue until recently.
"The clergy has always been involved," clarified Rev. Butts, adding that his church has been taking care of those affected with the disease. "People have not been paying enough attention."
Black ministers at the conference also agreed to not discriminate in reaching out to the African American with their message, even those of the gay community.
Jakes acknowledged that while the group represented different theological viewpoints on homosexuality, he asserted that those differences should not distort the issue.
"Tomorrow we can save souls but today we must save lives," said Jakes.
Butts affirmed the commitment of the churches to collaborate together toward a solution.
Standing near Jakes, Butts said, "It's no accident we are standing shoulder to shoulder today; this is the will of God.
"We are better together than we are apart," he added.
On the Web: More on the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS at www.nblca.org.