Nation's Largest Black Religious Group Takes Up HIV/AIDS for First Time

The nation's largest African American religious organization this year has for the first time placed HIV/AIDS on its conference agenda.

More than 45,000 delegates of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., have convened in St. Louis this week for their 102nd Annual Congress of Christian Education. And among the highlights of the June 18-22 event is the first Annual HIV/AIDS Conference.

"The numbers dictate we have to pay more attention and take ownership," said health organizer Evelyn Mason, according to The Associated Press. "This disease has taken ownership of us."

Blacks accounted for 49 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the nation in 2005, and HIV infection is the leading cause of death for black women aged 25-34 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the high HIV infection rates in the black population, HIV and AIDS have been considered taboo in the African American as well as the wider church community, as it has been associated with homosexuality and drug use.

The National Baptist Convention disregarded the disease as "something only bad people get," Mason noted.

At one of the Washington Metropolitan Area's largest black churches, Dr. Karyn Cole, who has chaired free community health expos at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, said HIV wasn't even mentioned in the church for a long time.

At the church's 2007 annual Health Expo in Landover, Md., earlier this month, the Health Ministry listed "His Caring Hands" in the expo programs among a list of workshops. Cole explained that the vague workshop title "His Caring Hands" is actually a new HIV ministry in the church but "HIV" was purposely left out of the program to draw more people to be educated on the issue.

HIV testing and "His Caring Hands" were featured for the first time this year at First Baptist's more-than-decade-old health fair.

"Now, we're trying to educate ourselves," said Cole.

On Saturday, the National Baptist Convention will also open a half day's worth of workshops, testing and health education to the church community and the public. As part of the Congress' aggressive effort to address the needs of the African American community, the 2007 Congress and St. Luke Memorial Baptist Church, the host church, has partnered with Mayor Francis G. Slay and the City of St. Louis for the historic event.

A workshop this week will also teach 3,000 teenagers safe behaviors to prevent HIV infection.

"Now the national organization is picking up the mantle and carrying it," said Mason.

The Nashville-based National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., founded in 1886, claims an estimated membership of 7.5 million.

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