June 6, 2013

 The African American Church and HIV:

A Call to Action Using an Afrocentric Approach

Man of Sorrows: Christ With AIDS by Maxwell Lawton (April 27, 1956 - September 16, 2006)

            For almost 4 decades HIV/AIDS has been a global issue. Books, Broadway plays and musicals, films, documentaries, magazines, medical prevention models and programs, marches, parades, government legislations, organizations, companies, civil rights movements, religious infrastructures, military protocols, Presidential campaigns, and a host of other cultural aspects have been affected, informed, created, and contextualized through this disease’s filter. HIV/AIDS has become as intertwined within the American tapestry as American football and apple pie. Perhaps this disease has not been as openly discussed or acknowledged, but within every community, culture, language, and ethnicity represented within this nation, HIV/AIDS exists as a gnawing presence in our collective consciousness.

            No other gender-racial group has been as disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS than that of Black men who have sex with other men (MSM). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “In 2010, there were an estimated 10,600 new HIV infections among Black/African American MSM. By comparison, in the same year, there were an estimated 11,200 new HIV infections among White MSM and 6,700 new HIV infections among Hispanic/Latino MSM” (2013). However, according to the United States 2010 Census Bureau Report, African Americans make up 12.6% of the U.S. population, Caucasians 72.4%, and Hispanic/Latino 16.3%. The CDC goes on to state that:

  • “Blacks represent approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44% of new HIV infections in 2010. They also accounted for 44% of people living with HIV infection in 2009.
  • Since the epidemic began, more than 260,800 Blacks with an AIDS diagnosis have died, including an estimated 7,678 in 2010.
  • Unless the course of the epidemic changes, at some point in their lifetime, an estimated 1 in 16 Black men and 1 in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV infection” (2013).

HIV Within an Afrocentric Worldview

            Throughout the African’s enslavement and sojourn on this continent, we have faced a myriad of atrocities against us. Much of these afflictions have been perpetrated upon us by others not privy or sensitive to our worldview, beliefs, and customs. Much of what we brought and believed in has been changed, assimilated, or lost. However, what has remained consistent is our sense of community and “collective identity” (Schiele, 1997).

           One of Afrocentricism’s tenets is that “we” is greater than “I” and that the concept of “individual” is not at the expense of “community.” It holds that what happens to one member of the community happens to us all. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is a very Afrocentric worldview. Another tenet of Afrocentric thought is that you must do something with the information you have in order to create social change. According to Goodley, “The idea of having knowledge of an injustice without engaging in planned change to eradicate the problem is antithetical to the African-centered paradigm” (2004). So why, after over thirty years of this epidemic ravishing our community has the African American community (AAC) done little to address and collectively mobilize around educating and preventing the spread of this disease?

The Church’s Significance in African American Culture

            There is arguably no stronger or more influential institution within the AAC than the Church. African American Churches hold historic relevance in the AAC. They played a crucial role during our slavery and our civil rights. For generations, it has been the bumping place for our community. Within it, we have continued rituals and practices that have reinforced our uniqueness in a hegemonic culture that is often contrary to our own. It was the only place we felt free to be ourselves and, within community, be reminded of our heritage and rich culture. Too often however, the very institution that many members of the AAC go to for sanctuary is often the very place they are likely to find oppression, discrimination, and gender injustice. Being affiliated with Church as an African American can be a double-edged sword for those dealing with HIV/AIDS, namely MSM or those who might be considered on the fringes of the community. “Double Consciousness,” as coined by W.E.B. Dubois, is prevalent on many levels within the AAC and the Church.

            Historically, our nation’s racial dynamics has created groups I call “others.” “Others” are any race or people outside of the hegemonic culture. Inherent within the construction of “others” is the construction of other less privileged cultures. For instance, White gay/bi men are “others” within the White heterosexual normative. Blacks are “others” within the White normative. And Black gay/bi men are “others” within both the White, heterosexual normative and within the AAC. For Black gay/bi men, the exclusion is two-fold, both in race and in sexual orientation. This is profound, not only for the work the Church needs to do to address this epidemic, but also for the future of HIV/AIDS social work. In order to reach those suffering, it is imperative to understand where they are and why they are there.

Homophobia and the African American Church

            Due to this paper’s brevity, it is impossible for me to fully delve into another issue that would bring great light to the subject of the Church and HIV, “The African American Church and the Homosexual.” In that light, I will attempt to be concise in detailing how homophobia, as one component of the Church’s ignorance (denotatively speaking), has disseminated into and has helped promote a culture of silence, denial, and negligence.

Phill Wilson, Founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute states that:

For LGBTQ people who are Black, the consequences of homophobia may be more devastating because we need [our] communities to protect us on the question of race. For example, when I am assaulted on the bases of race, where do I go for sanctuary? If my Black Church or my Black civil rights organization or my Black family rejects me because I’m gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning, then I lose that sanctuary…in order to address [and to fight HIV/AIDS], we need to understand [that our homophobia] is different from the homophobia experienced in other communities (2010).

            Homophobia within the AAC in general and the Church specifically has been, in my opinion, the quintessential issue preventing the Church from launching full force into addressing the HIV/AIDS issue so prominent on our doorstep. After all, how can they address HIV/AIDS without jumping into the larger issue of homosexuality? Homosexuality has been deemed as deplorable within the AAC and HIV/AIDS has often been deemed not only as a “White gay man’s disease” but as a punishment for those members who participate in such activities.

           In “On the Horns of a Dilemma: Institutional Dimensions of the Sexual Career in a Sample of Middle-Class, Urban, Black, Gay Men,” one of Adam Isaiah Green’s participants is quoted:

For my father, homosexuality was forbidden on two fronts. From the religious front, it was an abomination, it was sinful, like the last taboo. And then from just the fact of being a man, it was unacceptable… Homosexuality was a White man’s disease that weak Black men could catch (2007, p. 759).

This sentiment of homosexuality being an abomination and against cultural norms is pervasive in the AAC. According to Peterson:

Male-male sexual contact violates traditional norms about gender roll behaviors and is perceived as a threat to the institution of the family because of the shortage of marriageable men in African American Society. Cultural beliefs about conventional sex roles equate masculinity with exclusive sexual interest in women and violations of these role expectations are perceived to limit propagation of the African American population. Insofar as these negative views are internalized (self-homophobia), African American men may be motivated to avoid recognition of their HIV risks and efforts to change high-risk behaviors (1995, p. 99).

            It is clear that homophobia within the African American Church prevents and deters conversation from the larger issue of HIV/AIDS, but, I feel there is yet another foible the Church finds itself espousing: denial.

In the Face of Denial, We Die

            On the issue of denial within the African American Church, much can be said and written. We, as a community have almost four decades of research, statistics, and deaths. Historically, the AAC came to the prevention party later than the rest of the medical and LGBT community did. We assumed that it was not our issue, only a White gay man’s disease. We no longer have the luxury of such fallacies. Wilson states:

I never suggest and never imply it is any less tragic when anyone [else] gets infected with or gets sick or dies from HIV/AIDS. But when 50 percent of all new HIV cases in this country are in Black communities, when 50 percent of the 1.1 million people estimated to be living with HIV in America are Black and when 50 percent of all AIDS-related deaths in the United States are Black, I don’t think there’s any room to debate that AIDS in America is a Black disease. What’s most important for those folks who are not Black to understand is that if we do not solve the problem in Black communities in America, we cannot solve the problem in America as a whole… First and foremost, Black America has to take ownership of the AIDS epidemic. We need to stop believing it’s someone else’s problem and it’s happening somewhere else. We need to understand we can’t wait for, or depend on, other folks to save us. If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, we should have learned they’re not going to send the boats for us in time. While there is a role for the government, philanthropic organizations and foundations to play, and we should advocate with them – if none of those institutions play their role, if we are left to our own devices, we still have to survive. We have a responsibility to take leadership in our own survival (2010).

When Oppression Becomes Self-Defeating

            The Church’s use of homophobia as a smoke screen to sustain its culture of denial and silence is cowardly, antithetical to an Afrocentric worldview, and unsustainable. History does not favor institutions of injustice regardless of how righteous they deem themselves. The irony is that while the Church, in general, turns a blind eye to HIV/AIDS, many of the people whom they have been a beacon for for generations are dying in the shadow of the Church’s denial. Although it is not solely the responsibility of the Church to address this issue within our community, they cannot now abandon the office of spiritual responsibility and shepherding they have occupied for centuries. HIV/AIDS is an injustice and blight upon the AAC. Doing nothing only ascertains the Church’s acquiescence to the sickness and death of millions of African Americans. And for many within the community this is a valid option and a present reality.

            Many of our community members have traded the Afrocentric worldview for a Eurocentric one. We have replaced community with the individual. It is “I” versus “we” and the “I’s” are winning. We have adopted the stance of us versus them. The “them’s” are the Church’s form of “other’s,” those with HIV/AIDS, the homosexual, the intravenous drug users (IDU), and other’s on the fringes of the community. The African American Church has used scripture against the LGBT community and with their message of reprobation and abomination, has caused severe damage and isolation (Walters, Longres, Han, & Icard, p.401). We are considered members of the community in skin only. In blatant disregard to the help the Church is capable of rendering, they have become the oppressors of a new brand of “other’s.” The once oppressed has become the oppressor. “It is a rare peasant who, once ‘promoted’ to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself” (Freire, 1970).

Getting Back to Our Roots – Coming Home

            In an Afrocentric worldview the divisions described above have no place. In Afrocentricism there is a place at the table for everyone in the community. What happens to one of us happens to all. HIV/AIDS is a communal issue. It’s not a “them” issue, it is a “we” issue. None in our community is unaffected. The African American Church holds a prestigious position within our community to provide healing and do justice. We may not all agree on the rightness of homosexuality, but we all can agree that HIV/AIDS has caused far too much pain and has claimed far too many lives. However, it is going to take brave, bold, and decisive action on the part of the Church and the community, from pastors in the pulpit to laymen in the pews. It is going to take community members standing up and educating each other on the facts of how HIV/AIDS is affecting our communities, from the Church pulpit to the jailhouse. We must stop standing idly by while our family, our community, and our heritage is destroyed due to our judgments and negligence. A call for action in the name of justice must be heard. This can be done. We as a community have survived so much that it would be a shame to allow sickness and disease to prove our undoing.
            It’s time to come home and reaffirm our basic tenets of community and justice. Healing is possible. We have the means and we have the platform to address this injustice. But in order to do justice, the proper education and knowledge is necessary. As Wilson laments:

We have not invested the resources to ensure folks understand the epidemic beyond a superficial level. We are still fighting myths, conspiracy theories and misinformation because the HIV science literacy in Black America is wholly inadequate (2010).

            In order for the Church to take the lead in healing the community there must be a proper educating of the masses. The Church surely has a platform, not to bully, but to heal, to love mercy, and to bind up the wounds of the sick, the broken, and the maimed. And healing will only come “in community, in the telling and the bearing witness, in the naming of trauma and in the grief and rage and defiance that follow” (Morales, p.16). This must happen as “we” not as “I.” We survived for centuries as a community because we stood together. It is now time to stand again, remove the veil, teach the truth, call for action, demand attention, and shrink from nothing short of justice for ourselves and our progeny. This is our new civil rights movement, albeit internal. No one can do this but us. And there exists no greater force in our community than the African American Church. As it is written, “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b, New International Version).  In closing, I leave with a quote of action and of hope:

Black people have, in fact, been greater than any challenge we confronted in the past. We were greater than the Middle Passage, slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the turmoil of the ‘60s – we were greater than George W. Bush. This campaign is a call to action and says, “If we were greater than all those things, we can be, we will be, we have to be greater than AIDS as well (Wilson, 2010).


Author’s Note


            As I pen these, the last words of my Grad school MSW career, it is in the wake of my dear friend, Donta Rogers’ passing this week. He died of cancer but also struggled with HIV for several years. I think back over the past 3-4 years of my profession. I have learned a great deal working in the HIV/AIDS field. I have had the privilege counseling and testing every major racial group: African American and African descent, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Pacific Islander. I have witnessed in my career and in my personal life the affects of this disease and have cried bitter tears for those I’ve loved and have celebrated in their medical achievements. I have seen once healthy people ravished by this disease and have watched the shock on my clients’ faces after receiving a positive diagnosis.

            This disease has affected all of us. And it is my hope that, if we don’t find a cure soon, we are able to build enough bridges to communicate the need for sexual honesty and safety. This epidemic is not uncontrollable, nor is it non-preventable. If anything, this virus has given us a golden opportunity to come from behind our shadows, locked doors, and ignorance to a new day of sexual intelligence and candor. Until that day comes, I will continue to be one of the many bridge builders. I have been truly humbled and grateful for this experience.


Bent-Goodley, T.B. (2004). An African-Centered Approach to Domestic Violence. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, (2005), p. 200.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, May 13). HIV Among Black/African American Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men. Retrieved June 1, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/racialethnic/bmsm/facts/index.html

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, May 13). HIV in the United State: At A Glance. Retrieved June 2, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Green, A. I. (2007, March 9). On the Horns of a Dilemma: Institutional Dimensions of the Sexual Career in a Sample of Middle-Class, Urban, Black, Gay Men. Journal of Black Studies Vol. 37 No. 5 (May, 2007) (p. 759). DOI: 10.1177/0021934705280305

Morales, A.L. (1998). Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Peterson, J. L. (1995). AIDS-Related Risks and Same-Sex Behaviors Among African Amercian Men. In B. G. Gregory M. Herek (Ed.), AIDS, Identity, and Community - The HIV Epidemic and Lesbians and Gay Men. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Schiele, J.H. (1997) The Contour and Meaning of Afrocentric Social Work. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 27, No. 6. (July, 1997), p. 805.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Apportionment Data. Retrieved on June 1, 2013, from http://www.census.gov/2010census/data/

Walters, K.L., Longress, J.F., Han, Chong-Suk, Icard, L.D. (2007). “Cultural competence with gay and lesbian person of color,” in Lum, D., Culturally competent practice: A framework for understanding diverse groups and justice issues (Third ed.). CSU.

Wilson, P. (2010, Jauary/February). Fighting AIDS With Lessons Learned From Black History. (R. Hofmann, Interviewer) POZ Magazine.