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Black Churches And HIV: 'Sex Is A Reality ... We Gotta Deal With It'


Now we're looking at a new approach to confronting a public health challenge - the spread of HIV and AIDS. World AIDS Day was this weekend and that's a time when health policy experts and activists talk about solutions to stop the spread of HIV and to deliver care to those who are already infected. Here in the U.S., African-Americans are the racial group most likely to be living with HIV and AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million black Americans are living with HIV. And African-Americans - blacks - made up 44 percent of the new HIV diagnoses among adults in 2010.

Now, that's the last year when reliable numbers are available. Now while public health officials have been struggling with how to reach out to African-Americans at risk, more black churches are stepping up. Joining us now to talk more about this is Pastor Timothy Sloan. He's senior pastor at Saint Luke Missionary Baptist Church, also known as The Luke. It's just outside of Houston, Texas. Not only did he speak about HIV and AIDS during his sermon on Sunday, the church also performs HIV testing. Pastor Sloan, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

PASTOR TIMOTHY SLOAN: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this as a subject? I think some people might be surprised that this is a subject that you preach about.

SLOAN: Well, interestingly enough, about three years ago this was not even on my radar, theologically or in a ministerial capacity. But I got involved with a 10-city tour that the NAACP was conducting, called Let it Rise, to really engage black churches and faith-community leaders to talk about HIV and its impact on the African-American community. It was at that point that I basically told NAACP leaders that this is an issue that I probably would address, but I feel very ill-equipped and I think most pastors do - not having enough information to feel adequate to talk about it from the pulpit. But when I got the information I needed from them, it has really spurred on what has become an incredibly public passion for me in ministry.

MARTIN: How come?

SLOAN: Well, when you realize the statistics and the impact it's having on the black community, it is amazingly alarming. Not knowing that you have over half of new HIV infections are impacting African-Americans - not knowing that 1 in 15 black men are incarcerated but 1 in 16 are going to have - contract HIV in lifetime - or knowing that if black America were a country, it would rank 16th in the world in HIV infections. And knowing that I live in Houston, Texas, in Harris County - one of the leading counties in new HIV infections in Texas - these just, I mean, set off the bells for me. And I realized that I couldn't ignore it any longer and I don't think black churches can afford to either because HIV is in the church. It's on the pew. And it's critical that we begin addressing it.

MARTIN: What has been the reaction just in your congregation and in the broader faith community when you started talking about this?

SLOAN: Well, I was, again, so worried that the church wouldn't receive it well because of the stigma in the black church and in our community. And also, I was in the middle of a building campaign before I launched this. So I was concerned that I was going to really get some backlash by talking about HIV. But the strange thing is when I finally got up the courage to talk about it, our church gave me a standing ovation in all three services. And what it suggested to me was they had been waiting for me to talk about it. It was just my own issues that kept me from really dialoguing about HIV.

MARTIN: Have you talked with other ministers in your circle about your experience and what have they said?

SLOAN: Yeah, well, we've had so much tremendous success now dealing with HIV. And we think it's important now to train other churches and pastors and so - along with NAACP, we've begun training faith leaders across the country. We've done two local trainings here in Houston. And the number of pastors that come out for the trainings has not been to the degree that we want it to yet, but those who do come out, I believe are empowered to say, hey, this is something that I've got to deal with. I've got to overcome my own personal fears about talking about it. And so now we're really working hard to train other faith leaders and pastors so that they can experience the same success. But also, so we can keep HIV from killing another generation.

MARTIN: You know, it sounds - forgive me - with respect, pastor - it seems in a way that this is one of those issues where the congregation was ahead of its leadership.

SLOAN: Well, interestingly enough I think that when you have people in the pews who are impacted by HIV and you've got individuals who have a family member or they know someone who has been impacted - they struggle with the stigmatization of it, but they also have been waiting for some prophetic mantle to be placed upon the pastor in the church. And so, to some degree, I guess internally they were ahead of the pastor and just simply waiting for me to really speak up about it.

MARTIN: What was your message this Sunday, if you don't mind my asking, being mindful that we don't have your usual sermon length for you to share with us? But if you could maybe just give us the top line.

SLOAN: Sure. The Cliff notes. Well, we talked from the book of Luke Chapter 10 - and it's the story of the Good Samaritan. And really, the message is that HIV is a social justice issue. And so you're talking about health equity, but you're also talking about the fact that so many people are being excluded in the church and they're being pushed to the fringes - they're marginalized. And so my message to our church was understanding what HIV/AIDS is, its impact on the people in our community and realizing we have got to embrace those who are on the margins because it's a part of our very identity in the Christian faith. And we can no longer afford to do that and then claim a commitment to Christianity.

MARTIN: As in other issues of sexuality, I think there are those who argue or who worry that if there is a more inclusive attitude about certain, you know, issues that that will somehow open the door to lack of moral standards, for example. I mean, I'm just wondering if you've heard that? What is your answer to those who say, well, we can't be seen as condoning, you know, certain behavior because that's not our job as faith leaders. How do you respond to that?

SLOAN: Sure. There is the concern that oh, if we talk about HIV and AIDS, it's an endorsement upon homosexuality or that we're talking about different sexual alternative lifestyles. But the reality is, is that it's really the church who is acting as though we have some ostrich mentality burying our heads in the sand and acting as if it doesn't exist. People in the church are having sex. Sex is a reality and we've got to talk about - you can't skirt around the subject.

Now you've got teenagers who are having children. How do you think we're going to deal with that? We've got to talk about condom use. We've got to talk about prevention. We've got to deal with it so that our children don't end up being raised by MTV and the different television storylines that talk about sexuality. And so for black church leaders, it is pastorally and prophetically irresponsible not to talk about it simply because it's going to deal with a sexual issue.

MARTIN: Timothy Sloan is senior pastor at Saint Luke Missionary Baptist Church. He was kind enough to join us from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. Pastor Sloan, thank you so much for speaking with us. Happy Thanksgiving to you. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

SLOAN: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.