US Churches Largely Absent in HIV/AIDS Fight, Leaders Say

Religious leaders have been faced with obstacles when trying to convince the church to teach about HIV/AIDS in an effort to prevent new cases and teach awareness.

Rev. Keron Sadler, a member of the NAACP in Baltimore, is faced with negative reactions when trying to persuade church leaders in Baltimore to talk about HIV/AIDS. She has dealt with pastors walking out on her, calling AIDS a curse and one saying he fears his congregation will think he is gay.

The topic of HIV/AIDS will force the church to take on topics that it doesn’t want to be seen as condoning or supporting - topics like homosexuality, drug use and having multiple sex partners, according the Baltimore Sun.

In an article from the Council on Foreign Relation, Isobel Coleman wrote that neglectful religious leaders could play a role in helping to spread the epidemic.

“While religious leaders are unusually well-placed to provide followers with guidance about this preventable disease, they have in many cases contributed to the epidemic by denying the importance of condoms in HIV prevention and contributing to the stigma that AIDS patients already confront,” Coleman wrote.

“The obstacles to achieving an AIDS-free generation - and the benefits of this achievement for humanity - make the constructive involvement of religious institutions crucial. In evaluating our AIDS prevention strategy, we should view religion as a potentially powerful tool, albeit a complicated and multifaceted one,” Coleman added.

Many AIDS activists feel that the Church has to be a part of the fight against the disease.

Churches are the center of many neighborhoods in cities, like Baltimore, and most residents get their messages from the pastors.

Surveys found that nearly 50 percent of Baltimore drug users have attended Church in the past month. Another survey of 300 people with HIV said that Church is important in their lives and 44 percent said faith became more important after they were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Bishop Willard Saunders Jr., from the Created For So Much More Worship Center in Baltimore, said he promotes HIV/AIDS education. However, he will not sacrifice the beliefs of the Church to do so, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The Church tells its members that gay sex, promiscuity and drug use are all unsavory, risky behaviors that could lead to HIV/AIDS.

S. Todd Yeary, a pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, said churches need to learn to teach about prevention without passing judgment.

“Part of the challenge of dealing with the dilemma of HIV has been a reluctance to be honest with the fact that our job is not to police what goes on in people’s bedroom,” Yeary told the Baltimore Sun.

A Cambodian report called the National Review of Faith-based responses to HIV, which reviews HIV initiatives conducted by Buddhist, Christian and Muslim groups working on HIV/AIDS in the country, reported that the highest-risk groups are “marginalized”.

“While many faith-based organizations provided HIV awareness education to the general population, fewer organizations implemented targeted HIV prevention interventions among key affected populations, such as sex/entertainment workers, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, and people who use drugs,” the report said.

No faith-based organizations are working with transgender individuals, according to the report.

“More needs to be done to ensure that faith-based leaders are engaged with the higher-risk populations,” said Ulrike Gilbert, an HIV specialist at UNICEF. Gilbert helped work on the report.