Religious leaders tackle HIV/AIDS discussion

Ayana Jones | 12/14/2010, 6:26 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Pastor Alyn Waller of Enon Baptist Tabernacle is no stranger to addressing HIV in the church setting.

Since 2006, the church has been offering HIV testing and a support group for individuals infected and affected by HIV. In March of 2006, Enon hosted a HIV testing event where 1,000 people were tested in one day. At Enon, it’s common to hear about the issue of HIV.

“We speak about HIV and AIDS consistently because we are not afraid of the sex talk,” Waller said. “It’s not unheard of to hear me teaching or preaching about sexuality in general.”

Enon Tabernacle was one of 100 churches and mosques that participated in a city-wide campaign that kicked off in November to help combat the rising rates of HIV within the black community by encouraging people to get tested. During the campaign some churches preached on the issue while others disseminated information about the disease.

“We have been involved with HIV issues for some time so when the opportunity came up to do something across the city with other clergy we just felt it was consistent with what we are already doing,” Waller said of Enon’s participation.

The campaign was coordinated by the Interfaith Health Action Alliance of Philadelphia, which is a coalition of faith-based organizations that seek to reduce health disparities in Philadelphia, particularly HIV/AIDS disparities.

IHAAP evolved after Amy Nunn, research professor of medicine at Brown University, approached Rev. Marguerite E. Handy, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives with a proposal to engage churches and mosques. The campaign comes at a time when African Americans make up 64 percent of the new HIV infections in Philadelphia.

Waller gave various reasons why the faith-based community should be engaged around the issue of HIV.

“The church is supposed to be the heart of Christ and if Christ were here, this would be on his agenda,” Waller said. “Dr. Martin Luther King once said in the 1940s if you were a Christian living in Europe you should have stood up and said, ‘I am a Jew’ because of what Hitler was doing to the Jews. If you were a Christian in America in the 1950s and the 1960s, you should have stood up and said, ‘I am a Negro’ because of the fight for civil rights,” he recounted.

“If you are a Christian today, you should stand up and say, ‘I am HIV positive’ because of the challenges that are facing people who are HIV positive and because of the work that is yet to be done, talk about how the disease is transmitted and how we can protect people from it.”

Waller said the church can play a role in challenging pharmaceutical companies to make it affordable to be treated and that the church is best suited to address HIV-related stigma.

“So many people don’t want to get tested. They don’t want to talk about the disease because of the stigma that comes with the disease,” he said.