LAST WEEK, the Seattle-King County health department sent 200 invitations for a summit on AIDS in the African-American community. Invitees included not just the usual advocates and health care workers, but community leaders, most notably the clergya group considered crucial to reaching African Americans but one that has been reluctant to take the issue on (see "The New Face of AIDS," Oct. 23, 2002). The summit, to be held at the downtown Seattle Hyatt May 30-31, is part of a county initiative intended to change that. With the influence of King County Executive Ron Sims behind it, the initiative appears to be having an effect.
In February, 30 African-American pastors turned out for a breakfast sponsored by the county on the topic of AIDS. After listening to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Dr. Helene Gayle, formerly head of the AIDS program for the federal Centers for Disease Control, 20 of the pastors signed on to a local media campaign slated to begin at the end of the month. The names of their churches will appear on billboards and bus boards urging African Americans to get tested for AIDS. The county also plans to produce inserts for church bulletins on the topic.
THE PASTORS backing the project include some prominent names, such as the Rev. Dr. Leslie D. Braxton of Mount Zion Baptist Church, one of the biggest churches in the African-American community. Even more startling was an event Braxton hosted last fall during a weekly session at the church known as "Monday night madness," when men in the congregation show up to watch Monday Night Football and discuss various issues. This particular night was turned over to the topic of AIDS, with a mobile testing van on the premises supplied by the People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN). Braxton was the first one to get tested; some 50 parishioners followed.
"It was a really significant thing," says Aaliyah Messiah, a POCAAN program director. While there's been a push nationally to have testing at African-American churches, this may have been the first time anywhere. Subsequently, POCAAN brought its testing van to two other African-American churches, the Central Area's Mount Calvary Christian Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Baptist Church in Renton.
For more than a dozen years, POCAAN, the major organization in town catering to African Americans with AIDS and a sponsor of the upcoming summit, has been trying to involve churches, according to Messiah. For most of that time, she says, "It was like a brick wall. Now, it's like, little by little, the walls are starting to have a few cracks."
The reason may be sheer numbers. Nationally, African Americans account for a greater share of new HIV and AIDS cases than any other racial group. Though the figures are less dramatic locally because of the small African-American population, they still are disproportionately high: Blacks account for only 7 percent of the King County population but represent 15 percent of its HIV and AIDS cases.
Still, Charles Wilson, another POCAAN program director, says he feels the need to challenge pastors to do more. While trying to arrange testing at Mount Zion, Wilson says he told Braxton: "I need to know if you're truly a leader. If you're not, just let me know." Wilson, who knew Braxton as a child growing up in Tacoma, says Braxton told him: "Brother, you don't have to challenge me like that. I'm here, and I am willing to do what we need to do."
Just how African-American churches will take up the issue of AIDS is an interesting question. Parishioners from four local churches have been taking a Red Cross course that trains AIDS instructors working with African Americans. The course shows how to use African proverbs, Kente cloths, and libation rituals in talking about AIDS. But such culturally specific material doesn't get around the taboos relating to sex and homosexuality that have long stopped African-American churches from facing AIDS head-on.
BRAXTON SAYS his approach is to bluntly preach safe sex and "let people get mad. At least they'll stay alive. I've got time to work on their morality." He does not, however, favor such direct talk about homosexuality. In his Central Area office, dressed in a vivid blue shirt and suspenders, the charismatic minister says he believes that gay people have used AIDS education to press an "unconfessed agenda" related to changing attitudes toward homosexuality. He wants to "keep all that other stuff out of the conversation."
It's a controversial point, but also a pragmatic one. "Once churches feel that's the real agenda," he says, "they're going to shut the whole thing down."