A Southwest Philadelphia pastor incorporates HIV/AIDS into his ministry.
Sitting in his office at Southwest Philadelphia's Taylor Tabernacle Church, Associate Pastor Jonathan Ford ponders the cost of not knowing.
"Two years ago, if you would've asked me who was AIDS, I would've said 'white community,' 'gay people,'" he says, "but how wrong I was."
Ford learned the truth during a conference in Chicago, a truth he says blew him away.
Twenty-five years after the virus was first documented in gay white men, it has become an epidemic among African-American men and women, who account for 51 percent of new HIV diagnoses.
African-Americans bear the brunt of this epidemic, with black women diagnosed 20 times more often and black men at least seven times more often than their white peers.
As a result, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among African- Americans age 25 to 44, a group that makes up the bulk of Ford's congregation.
When Ford returned to Philadelphia, he convened a conference of local pastors. There, one pastor spoke of how his sister had recently died, and how his family never knew AIDS was the cause. "She lived, suffered, struggled and told no one," Ford says. "The church is right there, and something blocked her. That's my role as a pastor. I have to knock down those barriers. The church has to be a place of reconciliation."
After the conference, organizers called on the pastors to respond. And Ford had additional motivation after learning that the community surrounding his Southwest Philadelphia church has the highest number of reported AIDS cases in the city.
"I didn't know," Ford says softly, almost apologetically. "And when you don't know, you're helpless to do anything. But information is a powerful thing. It motivates people to do something."
Since then Ford has expanded the church's role, going beyond the message on the baseball cap lying on his desk that reads "REAL MEN PRAY."
The church, founded by his great aunt Dr. Carrie B. Taylor in 1947 and currently headed by Ford's mother, offers computer classes and job referrals for ex-offenders. And now Ford has expanded the church's role to include HIV/AIDS services.
"I'm totally for abstinence," he says. "Again, that's our Christian belief, but I'm also sensitive to the fact that everyone develops as a Christian at a different pace. While people may be under the umbrella of Christianity, some haven't fully matured to a point where they're bringing their belief into the sexual aspects of their life. The message will always be the gospel, but at the same time, you have to look at the reality you see in your congregation every Sunday."
According to a recent story in Newsweek headlined "Battling a Black Epidemic," poverty, poor healthcare and lack of sexual education are fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS. There's also the belief that powerful drugs have rendered HIV no big deal, as well as the stigma of homophobia, fears that HIV is a government conspiracy, a growing prison population and the silence of the black church.
Studies also show that as many as one in three people with HIV doesn't know they have it, and late diagnoses often reveal full-blown AIDS.
Ford's church has partnered with Circle of Care, and several times a month volunteers walk the neighborhood's shopping district, visiting barbershops, beauty salons and corner stores to pass out information on the church's new HIV/AIDS initiative.
Every other Wednesday, on the second floor of Ford's church, volunteers conduct a HIV/AIDS presentation, pass out fact sheets, answer questions, offer counseling and conduct 20-minute rapid testing for HIV.
"I think being in a church helps," Ford says of those whose tests show a strong indication of HIV. "I think having ministers available helps, just to lessen the shock."
Since Ford started the HIV/AIDS outreach, he says more people call the church to inquire about his Wednesday-night classes, and more have started attending Sunday-morning worship service.
This week a coalition of 10 neighborhood churches will hold a health fair, which is advertised on a banner outside of Ford's church. On hand will be a mobile HIV testing unit.