Top Black Leaders Convene for Historic HIV/AIDS Conference

NEW YORK — Over 150 of the nation's top African American leaders, including megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes, are convening in New York this week for the first national conference devoted toward creating a plan to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the African American community.

The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA) will host the historic National Conclave on HIV/AIDS Policy for Black Clergy at the AOL Time Warner building with a public news conference scheduled for Tuesday. The closed-door gathering, which began Monday, will be co-chaired by world-renowned pastors Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of The Potter's House in Dallas, and the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, chair of NBLCA.

The two-day meeting will mark the first time African American leaders from all sectors – including clergy, scholars, government and health agencies – have collaborated toward ending what Butts has called "a crisis" among the African American community.

While African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, according to a 2000 Census report, they accounted for slightly over half of the estimated 37,331 new AIDS cases in 2005. African Americans also lead other ethnic groups in the rate of AIDS diagnoses for adults and adolescents – ten times the rate for Caucasians and three times the rate for Hispanics. Even for new AIDS cases among children under 13, African Americans represented 46 of the total 68 cases.

"Once you hear the numbers, you realize the impact, the unthinkable loss of lives that we as a community are facing," said Butts, who is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, the historic African-American church in Harlem. "You absolutely know that a lot of this could be prevented."

At the meeting, African American leaders will work toward developing a five-year plan to significantly reduce cases of HIV/AIDS in the African American community. Participants will include Congressman Charles Rangel; former mayors Willie Brown and David Dinkins; Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Garth Graham, deputy assistant secretary for Minority Health, Office of Minority Health; and Dr. Gail Wyatt, associate director of the UCLA AIDS Institute.

They "will spend two days creating a comprehensive, strategic, and measurable public policy and legislative action plan on AIDS that they will take to Congress, their state officials, and local legislative leadership," said Debra Fraser-Howze, President/CEO NBLCA, in an announcement.

The faith community will be key voices in the meeting. In addition to Jakes and Butts, other African American clergy members will address the gathering. The Rev. Kevin Stephens, director of the Department of Health in New Orleans, La., and assistant pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church, will deliver a guest sermon on Monday followed by the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., on Tuesday.

During Monday's session, the clergy will participate in a break-out session called, Ministers' Working Groups, in which they use the National Medical Association's report to come to a consensus on a legislative action plan to address the HIV/AID crisis in the U.S. African American community.

Although participants will be able to draw upon reports and guidance from experts to meet the meeting's objectives, they aren't without challenges.

Jakes called the HIV/AIDS battle within the African-American community "unique."

"African-Americans wrestle with socioeconomic issues, a lack of education, delays in early detection, treatment and prevention, and insufficient access to affordable care and medications," he said. "These factors contribute to a rapid and startling ascent of African-Americans who contract and are dying from the disease."

The megachurch pastor has been an active figure in raising HIV/AIDS awareness among the faith community. At the end of last year, Jakes provided the opportunity for the African American faith community in Dallas to get tested for HIV/AIDS as part of his "It's Time to Step Up" campaign, aimed toward HIV/AIDS awareness, education, prevention, testing and optimal treatment.

"This meeting is not about theology, it's not about my agenda, it's not about anyone's agenda," said Jakes of the conclave. "It's about coming up with a solution to a health problem that is killing our people at rates never before seen."

Conference staff members were wearing the NBLCA's Kente Ribbon, a combination of the traditional red HIV/AIDS color and the Kente cloth, which portrays the royal African cloth worn by their ancestors. The ribbon symbolizes the NBLCA's commitment to preserve lives through increased culturally competent and sensitive HIV/AIDS prevention and education efforts for communities of African descent.

The two-day meeting is sponsored by Abbott Laboratories, Time Warner Inc., and Pfizer.