Pastors, HIV/AIDS workers urge black churches to help fight epidemic in their pews

Pastor Robert Arrington in his office at United Fellowship Church in North Charleston. Arrington, who is gay and is HIV positive started the church four years ago. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 12/31/13

When the Rev. Robert Arrington buried a young man who died due to AIDS complications, he mourned a life that ended lonely and rejected.

Arrington vowed to keep building Charleston's open and affirming black church.

When the Rev. Robert China buried first a 7-year-old boy, then the boy's father and later his mother, the pastor mourned a whole family devastated by the HIV virus.

He vowed to set an example for his fellow black clergy and parishioners that through Christ, God sent a message: Love one another as yourself.

Yet, in a day when 75 percent of new HIV cases in South Carolina strike African-Americans, both men agree: Most black churches have failed to address an epidemic killing people in their pews.

Black churches have long promoted civil rights and other social justice issues and provided havens for parishioners facing discrimination and suffering.

Why not those with HIV?

"It's kind of like the new leprosy," China said. "But in the Scriptures, it says that Jesus touched the leper. They are God's people."

The NAACP has urged black churches to address the matter through the lens of health equality. World AIDS Day, an annual awareness event, passed last month, followed by National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day coming Feb. 7.

And the statewide Project FAITH was created in 2006 to prevent the spread of HIV by tapping into South Carolina's strong network of black churches. State legislators allocated $1 million - funding that has since been eliminated.

Have churches responded?

"The black church response to AIDS has been spotty," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, a presiding elder in the AME Church and prominent civil rights activist based in Charleston. "There are still too many churches and pastors where it's a taboo subject."

Arrington felt God's call to the ministry when he was 21. But he didn't listen, not for another 17 years.

Instead, he traversed a pain-riddled journey through his sexuality and a near-death bout with pneumonia, a collapsed lung and a five-year life expectancy. In 1988, fighting for his life in a hospital bed, Arrington was diagnosed with HIV.

The product of a conservative Baptist church, he fought for the right to become an openly gay ordained minister in his home denomination.

Instead, he went to the Unity Fellowship Church Movement.

Four years ago, the Harlem native moved to Charleston and opened what he said is the area's first open and affirming black church.

An openly gay black pastor with HIV planting a church in the Holy City?

"Some people think I dropped in off a spaceship," he said.

Since then, he's held memorials for two young men who lost their lives to the virus. Both were tested too late for medical treatment to prolong their lives.

He's heard stories of people ridiculed by their pastors - or worse.

Today, 25 years after his own diagnosis, he urges people to get tested early. He offers a shoulder, a prayer, an empathetic ear to other African-Americans who struggle with their sexuality and HIV infection in the wake of church rejections.

Arrington also sat on the last World AIDS Day committee, one of the few black people and only pastor on the panel, he said.

Too often, he said, AIDS events are run by white men "who have a whole different journey to travel."

His North Charleston church, Unity Fellowship Church, has held testing days, and he plans to hold more. But the turnout can be spotty because people fear being seen at them.

Why? Stigma. In general, black churches tend to take a traditional view of marriage. In many black churches, sexuality remains hush-hush and homosexuality a much-disdained sin. What if someone sees them coming to get tested?

"They've been so hurt by the churches here," he said. "You have pastors preaching that they are going to hell or that this is a punishment from God."

Instead, many seek belonging at clubs or in casual sex or in the spiral of illegal drugs.

"If the African-American churches don't get it together, they are driving people to have unprotected sex," Arrington said. "When you've been rejected, you don't ask anyone to use a condom. You're just seeking love."

Meanwhile, he perseveres knowing that the times - and people - can change.

This Christmas, Arrington's 76-year-old mother visited him and his life partner in their home, for the first time.

"It was amazing to have her in my home on Christmas Eve," he recalled, tearing up with happiness.

As executive director of Lowcountry AIDS Services, Bradley Childs struggles to shove the heavy rock of stereotype past the 1980s notion that HIV is a gay white man's disease.

Childs lost his brother to the AIDS epidemic and has spent 10 years stressing the new realities:

In South Carolina, more than 75 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in 2012 were among African-Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A total 388 black men and 121 black women were diagnosed in 2012. That year, 135 white men and 31 white women were diagnosed.

One in 15 black men will be incarcerated in his lifetime. One in 16 will be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

Childs wants to help churches hold testing events, provide speakers and refer people to everything from addictions counseling to medical care to legal help - if they will just come ask.

A handful have. Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, for instance, holds testing events, provides referrals, hosts educational activities and offers an HIV/AIDS Care Team of folks trained in HIV outreach.

"Education is the key," said Angenita Watson, coordinator of Mount Moriah's HIV/AIDS ministry. "We should in every church and community embrace everybody. Learn more about HIV and don't stigmatize. We stigmatize what we don't know about."

Childs agrees - and admits to frustration. He said he has asked many other black churches to help support Lowcountry AIDS Services and has sought their members to serve on its board. He has invited black churches to tap into its services.

A few have. Most have not.

"We have tried," Childs said. "There is so much at stake."

The invitation, he added, remains open.

The Rev. Robert China has known people who said a loved one died of cancer rather than due to AIDS complications.

"Many times it's kept hush-hush," he said. "The family looks at it as a shame."

But when a 7-year-old boy in his church near Lexington died, the loss sat heavy on his heart. It nudged at his relationship with God and with his people.

The child's death wasn't about sexuality or drug use or sin.

It was about a boy.

"How could I attach anything to him? It wasn't anything he did. He was born with it," China said. "I just couldn't sit back and do nothing about this."

He knew about Project FAITH, a statewide effort to bring black churches into the battle against HIV. So he took some members from his church, Spring Hill AME, to learn more about the disease and how to facilitate educational workshops.

Some people feared getting involved. Their fellow church members would think they had HIV. Or were gay. They feared contracting the disease and being near people with it.

"I let people know that regardless of their feelings about (homosexuality) or what the word of God says, we are to love one another," China said.

Spring Hill AME held workshops to educate parishioners about the disease such as about how you can - and cannot - contract it. They emphasized early detection.

Then, they held testing events tied to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. More people showed up than they could handle.

China sees it as a leadership issue. When the 7-year-old's mother was diagnosed after his birth, he made a point to hug her, to welcome her, to demonstrate how he expected the church to respect her.

"The clergy has to show leadership," China said.

After all, the highest HIV rates are found mostly in Bible Belt states.

"It's tied to the fact that we've been silent on the issue. We don't want to talk about it. We don't want to deal with it," China said. "But people in the church are having sex and doing drugs. So the church shouldn't be about sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it doesn't exist."

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.