Philly Churches Set Taboos Aside to Fight AIDS

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 1, 2010

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Sunday morning, the sanctuary at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church rocks with music. The Men’s Chorus, about 40 older men in blue suits, stands at the back of the stage inside the cavernous room, swaying and singing praises to the Lord. In front of them, seven young ladies and one man dressed in black and white—the praise and worship team—also sing and dance, while an audience of 6,000 looks on from the double-decker seating area, many dancing in the aisles themselves.

Soon, the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor at the East Mt. Airy church, takes the pulpit. Waller opens with some jokes about potato salad at Thanksgiving dinner, but soon whips himself into a frenzy, jumping up and down. “Nothing but the grace of God has kept you from becoming HIV positive,” he projects into the microphone. It was just one line, part of a larger message about serving God, and that’s by design.

Today is World AIDS day, set aside to raise awareness about the estimated 33.4 million people worldwide living with HIV or AIDS. As a city particularly ravaged—there are 19,237 Philadelphians living with HIV or AIDS, roughly four times the national average—by the disease, Philly has spearheaded a faith-based movement over the past few weeks to get the word out about prevention and provide testing through many of the city’s churches, part of a program aimed at reaching black neighborhoods where infection rates are highest. Of those infected, 12,741 are black, and African-Americans account for about two-thirds of new diagnoses in the city.

Although Enon Tabernacle is a major participant in the efforts, church leaders say that this particular outreach is nothing new; they strive to make AIDS prevention and care part of their day-to-day activities throughout the year.

“It’s not as if we do anything special” for AIDS day, says the Rev. Leroy Miles, associate pastor of pastoral care and counseling, who leads HIV/AIDS support efforts at Enon. “Week in, week out we try to keep this in the forefront,” he says, noting that the church has placed an emphasis on AIDS prevention for about five years now. With total membership in the neighborhood of 16,000, Enon has unparalled reach in getting the message out.

The church participated in a citywide HIV testing two weeks ago, netting 120 people who stood in line to find out their status, but it also offers testing every week at its Germantown location on Coulter Street. Enon also hosts a LIVE (Living in Victory Every Day) support group for bi-weekly meetings with HIV/AIDS victims or family members of people with the disease. In August, Enon held a “Carnival for the Cure” as well as a HIV science and advocacy training to promote education and testing for the disease.

“We’re informing and training community leaders so they have accurate information, and they are informing their own constituency,” Waller says.

The Rev. Dr. Marguerite Handy, the city’s executive director for faith-based initiatives, says Enon’s work fits in with larger city effort to fight AIDS. “What we have done is sent out information through churches, mosques and synagogues, held meetings and conferences all over and set up five billboards,” she says. The billboards show five religious leaders, including Waller and Handy, standing under a banner reading, “We have been tested for HIV. Have you?”

Traditionally, churches have not been part of AIDS/HIV prevention efforts because of their unwavering belief that the spread of the disease is caused by sinful behavior—gay sex, or heterosexual sex with multiple partners—making it an uncomfortable subject to address.

That attitude is changing.

“Initially, the church was afraid to deal with it,” Miles says. “Now we’re making a commitment to say we’re willing to stand with anyone of any faith … to stand against HIV and AIDS.”

Even the Pope, long a staunch advocate against contraceptives, is tenuously getting on board with prevention efforts, writing in a new book that condom use shows “moral responsibility” in some cases when aimed at preventing disease. Though the Baptists worshipping at Enon have no association with Catholic papal doctrine, Miles says that the gesture is still meaningful. “It validates,” he says.

Breaking boundaries on sensitive subjects, this month Enon gave out fans and information pamphlets on HIV/AIDS to 10,000 of its congregants over a period of several weeks. The language is straightforward: “Protect: Always use a condom,” the fan reads. Miles laughs. “This is huge, here, just talking about condoms in church,” he says.

Nor does the pamphlet shy away from frank talk, with detailed instructions on condom use, like “Holding the tip, unroll the condom all the way to the base of the penis.” It’s not your typical Sunday morning sermon, but with sex on the mind, the church held a recent bible study devoted specifically to the subject.

“It was just a very honest, biblically based conversation about sex,” Miles says. “You gotta laugh when you’re hearing ‘anal sex’ in the context of bible studies.”

Homosexuality is no longer a barrier to care and support. “It’s not even an issue of gay. That’s not our conversation at all,” Miles says. “It’s an issue of fornication, and in some cases adultery. “ He asserts that no matter how church members contract the disease, Enon is there to help. “We’re not concerned with how,” he says. “We’re loving God’s people in the context in which they come.”

The message has reached church members like Terri Miller, who has been attending Enon for four years and says she appreciates the efforts to get the word out about the disease. “We try to help everyone we can,” she says. “We’re all human beings. But for the grace of God, that could be us with HIV.”

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