HIV continues to disproportionately impact black communities. Regardless of sexual orientation, black men have a 1 in 22 chance and black women have a 1 in 54 chance of contracting HIV in their lifetime compared with general population (1 in 68 and 1 in 253 respectively.) There is an urgent need for better information and access to testing, prevention resources and treatment options in black communities. Black clergy have the unique opportunity to activate their power within black communities to make a difference with HIV.
I serve as Lead Minister of a church in one of the most liberal and affluent cities in the United States. I am Ivy League educated and male which affords me incredible levels of access and privilege. But I am also black and single and sexually active. Until there is another alternative, I take Truvada* for what is commonly called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) because as a black man, I recognize that along with safer sex practices, this medication will help keep me and my sexual partners healthy where professional, social or economic privilege cannot.
*“TRUVADA FOR PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is indicated to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV‑1 in adults and adolescents (≥35 kg) who are at risk for HIV, when used in combination with safer sex practices.”
Coming from a generation that entered its sexual awakening in the 1980s concurrent with the global explosion of HIV/AIDS, my decision to begin taking PrEP was deeply personal. From a very early age, I had to find the deepest compassion and face the reality of close friends and even partners who became infected. I had to accept what HIV/AIDS had the potential to do to my own body, I had to learn how to grieve sudden inexplicable loss and I had to learn how to move on just to survive. I prayed for some kind of cure or vaccine to stop the spread of what felt like a Biblical plague. I lived the entirety of my formative years and most of my middle age with HIV/AIDS lurking behind some of my most intimate moments. When a reliable form of medical defense against HIV presented itself in the form of PrEP, I immediately got on board.
24….But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24
As a spiritual leader, this Bible passage calls me to share the reality and the responsibility for managing HIV. “[I]f one part suffers, every part suffers with it….” I believe that as long as even one person carries the virus, our entire society is HIV+. This belongs to us all. This scripture also tells me that we can beat HIV, because “if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Too often scripture and dogma have been used to unjustly shame and isolate people. Faith leaders have an urgent spiritual mandate to do more as a society to understand HIV, to celebrate our ability to resist new infections and to live God’s compassion by keeping everyone healthy regardless of their status.
More black clergy of all faiths and denominations need to become educated about HIV. Spiritual leaders must use their theology to promote a language of proactive compassion and support so that more people will be tested for HIV and seek available, appropriate, confidential services for prevention and health maintenance. Clergy can become as publicly fluent, well informed and pastorally competent about HIV as they are becoming about diabetes, mental health and addiction. In an age where access to healthcare is a national crisis, particularly among people of color, the message from clergy about the totality of embodied health cannot afford to be selective condemnation, hesitation or reluctance. Our message must be action, compassion and salvation. Clergy are uniquely positioned to make a dramatic difference because of ordained privilege. At all costs, we must resist the temptation to ever use that privilege as a weapon, especially against our own communities. Delivering a saving message about HIV treatment and prevention will literally save black lives.