Black Ministers Get Religion About HIV/AIDS

| Fri Oct. 12, 2007 11:06 AM EDT

It's about damned time.

It's only been in the last two weeks that the black church came to Jesus about AIDS. Let us pray that it's not too little too late.

Having long ignored the alarms about the AIDS epidemic decimating an already ravaged community, blacks' most prominent ministers officially joined elected officials, the National Medical Association (formed when the AMA was segregated) and other groups in moving past their homophobia and brimstone to reality: blacks must do something about the cultural underpinnings that feed the flames of AIDS. Not since the 60s has the black church so thrown itself behind a community issue.

Read this for a snapshot of the crisis and news about the group's first meeting, but the bottom line is this: black refusal to deal with its attitudes about male privilege, sex, drugs, homosexuality and superstitions (please don't mention Tuskegee again) was threatening us with near extinction (AIDS is the number 1 cause of death for black women 25-34). Blessedly, last week's meeting was a success, complete with action plan:

"Following a two-day conclave, over 150 African American leaders proposed the National HIV/AIDS Elimination Act, which they plan to introduce to Congress as early as January. The act calls on the federal government "to declare the HIV/AIDS Crisis in the African American community a 'public health emergency'" and urges "the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use his emergency authority to redirect resources to address this emergency."

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The group plans to hold the presidential candidates feet to the fire on AIDS as well. Officially at least, the taboo on acknowledging homosexuality from the pulpit (therefore in black life generally) will be lifted, however grudgingly. There'll be community education, outreach to homosexuals and relationships established with social services organizations which serve the AIDS community. Great. But something's missing.

What about confession and a request for forgiveness? As they've all no doubt preached, atonement, without a confession, is mere charity, a duty. Not a problem you helped create.

Many of these ministers only grudgingly admit that the black church had anything to do with the black AIDS epidemic denying, a la Ahmadinejad, that blacks would ever be gay, then sermonizing that homosexuality was an abomination, either ex communicating gays or forcing them onto the down low. (I'm amazed to realize in retrospect how many in my Southern Baptist congregation were total flamers. But as long as they stayed in their sham marriages and helped dog the 'queers' and 'bull daggers', they remained church leaders.) Several quoted ministers were at pains to deny that the church was overwhelmingly homophobic and saw AIDS as the wages of sin (though some saw the light early). But we don't have to look far for evidence, just to our HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).

With 100-plus campuses, HBCUs are notorious for their conservatism; they routinely censor campus newspapers, squash rallies and flyer-distribution of flyers for campaigns like HIV/AIDS awareness, and even protests of the Iraq war, a position uncontroversial among blacks. In particular, young black gays trying to assert themselves on HBCU campuses find themselves stymied by their colleges' administrators and alumni (many of whom are also ministers); few have been granted the student group charters required to officially exist on campus. The entrenched black religious, political and educational establishments see themselves in a battle for the soul of the black community and thus believe it is they, not black homosexuals, who are under fire for their beliefs; it'll be awhile before they get this new memo. Recently, black gays at Hampton University in Virginia tried, and failed, to establish a campus group for gays;

"You've got to recognize the history of HBCUs," said Larry Curtis, vice president for student affairs at Norfolk State University, where students recently formed a gay-straight alliance. "Most of them were founded by religious organizations."…

On historically black campuses, those tensions make life uncomfortable for gay students. "It's kind of hard to be out on campus and still be successful," said Vincent Allen Jr., head of Safe Space at Atlanta's Morehouse College. "As an out gay man, if I wanted to pledge [a fraternity], that door is pretty much shut to me. That's just the way it is."

But just as gay students can rightfully request campus inclusion, so too can black college administrators deny it, argued the Rev. William Owens, an HBCU graduate and head of the Coalition of African-American Pastors in Memphis, Tennessee. Those administrators may cite the Bible, or simply personal beliefs -- and they don't have to be politically correct, Owens said.

"They can say 'no' and I don't think they have to give a lot of reasons," said Owens, who joined other black pastors worried that, along with dismal marriage rates, socially accepted homosexuality "is a threat to the black family."

In 2002, the issue of gays on black campuses grabbed the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that organizes annual "coming out" days. "We would send out information to all the colleges and universities about getting national coming out packets, and for some reason the only institutions they were not hearing back from at all were the historically black colleges," said the group's diversity manager Brandon Braud, who began calling campuses.

He learned of gay groups at two historically black schools: Washington's Howard University, and Spelman College, in Atlanta. Administrators elsewhere denied having gay students (emph added), or said that while gays attended, "they're very underground," Braud said.

You can read the whole thing here, but it seems clear that it black religiosity and cultural conservatism have everything to do with the AIDS problem. We can't fight one without fighting the other, and on multiple battle grounds.

At 2006's high profile right wing Values Voter Summit, Rev. Dwight McKissic attacked as "insulting, offensive, demeaning, and racist" any consonance between gay rights and civil rights. He derided homosexuals as "comparing their sin to my skin" and who "can't reproduce so they have to recruit." While the Civil Rights movement sprung from righteousness, the gay rights movement springs from "the pit of hell itself" and is a "satanic anointment," birthed from the anti-Christ who is himself homosexual. Black ministers like McKissic aver that the fight against homosexuality is the most pressing issue facing blacks, seconded even by liberal black ministers like civil rights activist Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in southeast D.C. who sermonized in 2005:

"Lesbianism is about to take over our community ... I ain't homophobic, because everybody here got something wrong with him,' he said. 'But ... women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain't real. That thing ain't got no feeling in it. It ain't natural. Anytime somebody got to slap some grease on your behind and stick something in you, it's something wrong with that. Your butt ain't made for that. "'No wonder your behind is bleeding,' he said. 'You can't make no connection with a screw and another screw. The Bible says God made them male and female.'

"The congregation can be heard shouting its approval in the background during Wilson's sermon."

Whether the black church is conservative and gay-panicked because its community is, or vice versa, the result is the same: an AIDS epidemic. It's enough that the most powerful cultural strand in the black community has joined the battle. It would actually be Christian for it to humbly ask for forgiveness.