Stephanie Morris believes the church should be a place where everyone is welcome.
Because she knows that is not always the case, she is taking steps to embrace a group of people who might not view the church as a safe haven: those with HIV and AIDS.
“I have friends who are (HIV) positive and they don’t come to church because of the way they have been treated. For so long, the black church has pushed people away and treated them like they don’t belong,” said Morris, the HIV/AIDS ministry leader at Second Baptist Church in Medina, Ohio. “God is for everybody, and the church should be a place where anybody can come and feel comfortable.”
The ministry aims to educate, test and support people and families infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. The church belongs to a local government collaborative, which will provide HIV testing during an open house, and is a community-based program that predominantly serves African-Americans. The offices for the advocacy group for minorities living with HIV and AIDS are at First Grace United Church of Christ in Akron.
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Cleveland-based AGAPE is an outreach program that works to heighten awareness about HIV/AIDS in the African-American community and to improve the quality of life for individuals and families affected by the disease. It is a partnership between Antioch Development Corp. and the Cleveland Clinic.
Violet’s Cupboard, located in Akron, provides case-management services to people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. The nonprofit organization is named for a 62-year-old grandmother who was infected with HIV during a blood transfusion.
Together, the partners present information about HIV and AIDS and distribute material, including pamphlets titled “Abstinence,” “Condoms,” “Does Your Partner Hurt You” and “What Every Black Person Should Know About HIV/AIDS.”
Morris, who trained with the AGAPE program, said that although HIV/AIDS seems to be on the back burner, it is still prevalent, especially among African-Americans.
“There is a new case of HIV every 9 1/2 minutes. Every 35 minutes, a new case is found in women. The number of cases in teens and young adults and senior citizens are on the rise,“ said Morris, of Brunswick, Ohio. “The African-American community is disproportionately affected. Sixty-four percent of the women diagnosed are black women. We need to know our status.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 percent of people living with HIV are at least 50 years old and the age group represents 15 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases. One quarter of new HIV infections occur among adolescents and young adults, ages 13 to 29, and the HIV diagnosis rate for African-American women is more than 19 times the rate for white women.
Statistics from the CDC show the early profile of those affected by the illness was gay males, IV drug abusers and hemophiliacs. While those groups continue to be affected, the occurrence of HIV/AIDS has increased in the African-American community and more recently is becoming a problem in the Latino population.
The agency reports that African-Americans account for 40 percent of all recorded AIDS-related deaths in the United States. In 2009, blacks made up half of all new HIV diagnoses and nearly half of the new AIDS diagnoses.
In that same year, more than half of the men diagnosed with AIDS were African-American; the majority of African-American women who became infected contracted the virus through heterosexual contact with primarily African-American men. The agency reported its first two cases of AIDS in women — one Latino and one African-American. Both women were infected by the same intravenous drug user.
“This is an epidemic in our community, and the church has a responsibility to bring the issue to the forefront. We have to step up and educate people and support those who are affected by HIV and AIDS,” said the Rev. Cornell Carter, senior pastor-elect at Second Baptist Church. “Ministry should be judgment-free, because the very act of judging pushes people away. This ministry is in place to allow the love of Jesus to come through and embrace people where they are.”
The motto of the HIV/AIDS ministry is “When we know better, we do better.” Carter and Morris said the phrase captures the ministry’s aim to help people better understand how the virus is contracted, to encourage them to be tested and to help them move forward.
“All of the testing done here at the church is confidential. We are not here to judge and get into people’s business,” Morris said. “We want people to know their status because when you know your status, you can take care of yourself and not put others at risk. Just because we don’t hear about it every day, HIV is still here. And Second Baptist is here to help.”