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Breakthrough Sundays: Fighting HIV/AIDS From The Pulpit - 2003-08-14

Here in the United States, HIV/AIDS is becoming a disease of color. Of the more than 40-thousand new infections each year, more than half are among African-Americans. As a result, some churches are taking a leading role in raising awareness of the disease in the black community. It’s being done through a program called “Breakthrough Sunday.”

The idea behind Breakthrough Sunday is a simple one. Pastors preach about the risks of HIV/AIDS and then – while standing at the pulpit – are themselves tested for HIV. It’s being done in African-American churches in the New York State cities of Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester. And since November, when the first Breakthrough Sunday was held, hundreds of parishioners have followed suit and been tested.

The program was first organized by the community organization called Group Ministries, based in Buffalo. It was founded by Rev. Arthur Boyd, who, about 10 years ago, said divine inspiration told him to close his retail-clothing store and open a community outreach organization. For a while he wondered whether he had heard the message right, especially since he had just given up his family’s means of support.

Now, after years of supporting itself through donations, Group Ministries receives about a half million dollars in grants from New York State. Abbott Pharmaceuticals is also contributing to the program. Kenneth Smith is program coordinator for Group Ministries. He says HIV/AIDS was not a subject the church had readily taken to.

He says, "Because HIV and AIDS had been such a controversial subject in that you had to have contracted HIV and AIDS either by unprotected sex or IV (intravenous) drug use, it became a subject that the church didn’t seem to nestle up to. Of course, the church hasn’t nestled up to any health issue. So, it’s not completely out of church character that they hadn’t taken on the fight against AIDS."

Despite that, Mr. Smith says a church-led campaign still made the most sense in reaching those at risk.

He says, "Particularly the African-American church is so uniquely and pivotally situated historically as well as contemporarily. Back in time with the first slave revolts they were generally planned in the same place that they worshiped. So the church has been a Mecca if you will for grass roots issues and they’ve always been the proponents of behavior change."

The faces of HIV/AIDS have changed greatly in color over the past 20 years. In the early days, the disease was called GRID, which stood for gay related infectious disease. Ken Smith says as long as it appeared to be confined to the gay community, many people ignored the problem until it was too late.

"Well, it has torn down all the traditional barriers that people used to feel comfortable about. Oh, because it’s in the gay community that doesn’t affect me. Oh, it’s in the gay community and it’s in the IV drug using community, that doesn’t bother me. And so people had their little safety zones, which have since fallen away because the disease is an equal opportunity infector. Now while the numbers have diminished in the gay community, the numbers are still rising in communities of color," he says.

Mr. Smith says he hopes Breakthrough Sundays will result in churches becoming more heavily involved – not only in raising awareness – but also in counseling and treatment programs.

He says, "Research has shown that a person’s spiritual and emotional well-being is directly tied to the physical. And if a person is positive and outgoing and has a bright outlook on life, that those people generally fare much better when they fight any illness."

Plans are also underway to expand Breakthrough Sundays to the largest city in the state – and one of the largest in the country – New York City.