By Terrinieka Williams Powell, PhD (Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health)
The CDC notes that African Americans have the most severe burden of HIV of all racial/ethnic groups in the United States. Despite accounting for less than 15% of the U.S. population, African Americans account for nearly half of all new HIV infections. Because many people turn to churches for guidance and spiritual support, could Black churches also serve as key venues for HIV prevention for African Americans? Maybe… Findings from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicate that 85% of U.S. Blacks report religion as being very important to them and more than half of Blacks report attending religious services at least once a week.
But still, this is HIV… would anyone really consider Black churches as a viable option for prevention efforts given the stigma and silence around sex, drugs and sexuality in some churches? Most people might not, but many do. Studies have reported on the growing HIV prevention and treatment efforts of Black churches in the United States. Confidential, caring and consistent messages across settings are a cornerstone to HIV prevention. Consistently, Black churches, like barbershops and beauty shops, have become a viable vehicle to address the HIV epidemic in the Black community.
Here are 5 ways that some Black churches are fighting the spread of HIV:
Hosting HIV Screening Events – The CDC recommends that teens and adults (even our grandparents) get tested for HIV at least once a year. Almost 1 in 7 HIV positive individuals do not know their status, which places them at risk of unknowingly spreading the virus to others. . Congregations include individuals who would benefit from increased HIV testing efforts who would otherwise not have access to testing or may forego testing because they do not perceive themselves to be at risk for HIV. Black churches that host HIV Screening events help ensure that people know their status (get more facts about HIV in the United States from the CDC).
Framing HIV Prevention as a Social Justice Issue – In 2013, The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative was released by the NAACP. This initiative recruited faith leaders to be agents of change and to take action to stop the social injustices that have led to the unequal impact HIV has in the Black community. The resulting manual was designed to educate and support Black clergy and faith leaders who want to address HIV (more info available here).
Educating Faith Leaders and Congregants – Black churches are partnering with HIV/AIDS-focused social service organizations to learn the facts about HIV. HIV experts have been invited to congregations to speak about HIV, assisted faith leaders in preparing HIV-related sermons, and supported HIV/AIDS ministries. See Your Center 4 World, Sisters Together and Reaching, The Balm in Gilead, and Hope Springs for examples of efforts across the country. Knowledge is indeed power.
Partnering with Researchers – Black churches have partnered with researchers to assess church capacity and implement faith-based HIV programs. These collaborative efforts have been well documented and have demonstrated that Black churches have various levels of readiness to engage churches in HIV prevention. These findings are clear that although not all churches will be able to do the same things, all churches can do something. Efforts such as the KC Faith Initiative in Kansas City, Missouri and Project Shalem in Baltimore, Maryland offer evidence of the positive outcomes that can result from the commitment from churches and researchers to address HIV in their communities.
Serving as a Support Network for High Risk Groups: Many people with substance abuse issues, as well as members of the LGBT community are at a higher risk of contracting HIV. These same people attend church, view church attendance and religious worship as deeply intertwined with family and community life, and use spiritual practices to cope with life’s challenges. Individuals at higher risk of infection reported being more likely to discuss HIV prevention and treatment in churches where they feel loved and have people who listen to them (Williams et al., 2014).
Simply put, Black churches and congregants from all across the country are engaged in the fight to end HIV. The Black Church has been, and continues to be a place of support, comfort, and inspiration for many people. Coupled with the efforts in other settings, Black churches will help achieve the goals set forth by the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
Let the church say ‘Amen’.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). HIV among African Americans. Atlanta, GA: Author. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/racialethnic/aa/facts/index.html
Williams, T.T., Pichon, L.C., Latkin, C.A., & Davey-Rothwell, M. (2014). Practicing what is preached: Congregational characteristics related to HIV testing behaviors and HIV discussions among Black women. Journal of Community Psychology, 42(3), 365-378.
Terrinieka Williams Powell, PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of population, family and reproductive health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Williams Powell earned her PhD in community psychology from DePaul University. Her research interests focus on understanding how churches affect the sexual health outcomes of African-American adolescents and their families. She has a strong record of conducting research using a community-engaged approach. She embraces an interdisciplinary philosophy, which allows her to draw on theories from psychology, public health and sociology as well as incorporate both qualitative and quantitative research methods in her work. She is currently a protégée in APA’s Cyber Mentors program.