African-American churches are marking World AIDS Day with services of remembrance and hope. The churches are also hoping to educate members about a disease that is taking a toll in the black community.
In Los Angeles, AIDS disproportionately afflicts young African-Americans and members of other minority groups. Blacks make up just 10 percent of the city's population, but 25 percent of its AIDS patients. The problem is much the same in other U.S. cities.
Public health officials admit they have not done a good job in getting out the message in minority neighborhoods on how AIDS can be avoided. Black clergymen are helping spread the message that AIDS is transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person, or through activities that involve the exchange of bodily fluids.
The Reverend Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant Temple in Los Angeles had experience with AIDS in his previous career as a health care executive. He says he saw the stigma attached to the disease, which discourages people from being tested for the condition, and leads some who test positive to conceal their status, even from loved ones.
He says some mistakenly view AIDS as a problem of stigmatized communities, of the homosexual men and intravenous drug users among whom the disease first gained a foothold.
"One of the tragedies with respect to this disease is that it was early characterized in ways that made it, quote, shameful, for persons to be infected with the disease, " Reverend Oden said. "It was also frightening. And first impressions are lasting impressions."
Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of the Faithful Central Bible Church, like most ministers, has presided over funerals of those who died from AIDS. He says parishioners often view the disease as someone else's problem.
"It's 'those people,' it's 'them,' it's 'they.' And so I think there is a kind of innocent hypocrisy in the sense that we see it, we hear about it, but it's always someplace else, someone else, some other country, some other group, some other family," he said.
In fact, says Bishop Ulmer, AIDS knows no religious, class or race boundaries. He says the churches are working hard to spread that message in the black community.
"I think it is a matter of a heightened awareness this weekend that this is something that is a part of the very fabric of any given congregation, mosque, temple, church, whatever, because it touches everyone," he said.
AIDS has caused controversy in many Christian churches. Some liberal congregations promote safe-sex education, endorsing the use of condoms, while conservative churches urge sexual abstinence outside marriage.
Bishop Ulmer says his church promotes abstinence.
"That is our position. (But) I think the issue is that people are dying. I think the issue is that whatever approaches work, whatever position works to get people aware and responsive and tested, is what is called for," he said.
Reverend Oden agrees, saying AIDS is, first of all, a public health issue.
"The problem is ignorance, and that's what we're trying to address," he said. "Once one understands how the disease is transmitted, and that we are dealing with social interaction, it's no different than anything else. We have to talk about our behavior primarily, and then address it in a more mature, as well as a more religious perspective."
Bishop Ulmer will address the theme of AIDS in a special segment of his Sunday services and the Reverend Oden will speak about it in his sermon. At least 40 black churches in Los Angeles are addressing the subject Sunday in World AIDS Day services.