Black churches and AIDS

Los Angeles Times: More than two dozen prominent African American pastors met last week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to talk about how black churches could use federal grants to fight the spread of HIV in Africa and help that continent's tens of millions of AIDS orphans. The need is enormous. So is the irony.
African Americans, who account for 13 percent of the nation's population, represent 51 percent of new HIV cases -- and 69 percent of the new cases among women. Yet here at home, black churches have been even slower than their white counterparts to join in the fight against AIDS. Last year, for example, a well-known Los Angeles AIDS activist wrote to the leaders of 300 local black churches inviting them to a summit on HIV and AIDS in minority communities. She heard back from five.
White evangelical churches also were slow to respond to the disease once dubbed "the gay plague." Some prominent pastors even said that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuality. Most now disavow such responses, even if they remain disapproving of gay relationships.
Sermons fall short
Fiery sermons condemning homosexuality remain the norm in many black churches. But HIV in this country is spread predominately by sex between men, and hell-and-brimstone sermons don't make effective public health policy. Rather than deterring gay relationships, such preaching just drives them underground. It's common for African American men who engage in sex with other men not to identify themselves as gay. Many marry or have girlfriends and, if they have contracted HIV, pass on the infection.
Now, opposition to gay marriage is beginning to draw some black evangelicals away from the Democratic Party to the Republican camp. The federal money that has started flowing from the White House's faith-based initiative program to black churches has helped speed that process.
If black churches lobby the Bush administration to distribute lifesaving drugs (and condoms) and rally their members to support, or even adopt, AIDS orphans, they could play a positive role in fighting a disease that is devastating Africa. But they could and should play a greater role at home. They don't have to embrace gay marriage, just Christian compassion.

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