Panelists: Church can help ease HIV/AIDS stigma
The intersection of Christianity and HIV/AIDS was discussed during a World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) forum at the Central Library.
Panelists included preachers, youth leaders and an AIDS activist, many of whom have been directly affected by the disease. Rev. Savalas R. Squire Sr. moderated and conceived of the discussion. Squire, who is HIV-positive, is the music director at Gethsemane Hope Baptist Church. Squire said that as a minister and a married heterosexual man, he may not fit what many perceive as the face of HIV.
“Part of my reason for being open about being HIV-positive is that hopefully my life will help somebody else find hope, find strength,” said Squire, who learned he had the virus in 2010, having contracted it through a pervious relationship.
While Squire is open about his status and the issue of HIV/AIDS, the topic is still a touchy one in black churches. He opened the discussion by asking the panel why the black church – known for being vocal on many issues like civil rights and voting – has been relatively quiet about the alarming number of HIV infections in the black community.
“I’m not going to say we’ve been silent,” responded Dr. Nathan Scovens, pastor of Galilee Missionary Baptist Church. “I think we have gotten off to a slow start, primarily because of our lack of understanding and then there is a segment, probably, that’s judgmental.”
Scovens said Galilee has offered onsite HIV testing and offers compassion and acceptance to all, including those with HIV/AIDS. The subject is deeply personal for Scovens. When he was in college, his mother tested HIV-positive, having contracted the disease form his stepfather. She died in 1996 at the age of 45. Scovens admits that he was at first angry about his mother’s HIV infection and death.
“I’ve since learned to deal with it. God put me in a unique position that the man who infected my mother, I had to go back and do his funeral,” said Scovens of his stepfather, who died a year after his mother passed away.
[pullquote]“I’ve since learned to deal with it. God put me in a unique position that the man who infected my mother, I had to go back and do his funeral,” said Scovens of his stepfather, who died a year after his mother passed away.[/pullquote]Panelist Wanda Brendle Moss said anger was also an emotion that her children felt when they learned that she had HIV more than a decade ago. Not that the news and virus did not take an emotional toll on Moss. She said that at one point she was so depressed that she stopped taking her medication and was close to death.
The retired registered nurse said that today her work as an AIDS activist and advocates inspire her to live so that she can help others. Moss said churches should treat those with HIV/AIDS no different than they treat those with cancer and other ailments.
“Go to your Bible, read the words, it’s all there: how we move forward, how we treat people regardless of what their disease might be,” said Moss. “Embrace them and allow them to embrace you; we have volumes to share.”
Rev. Jeremiah Shipp, a teen leader at Love and Faith Christian Fellowship Church, said that the church can also play a role in preventing the spread of HIV. He advocated for teaching abstinence.
“From the church, we should be educating and teaching our young people that we are promoting for them to be abstinent and to save themselves until marriage,” said Shipp, who added that it’s important to talk to young people especially about the potential emotional, physical and spiritual consequences of sex.
The panel also included Kareem Greene and Shalonda Ingram of Bold! Right! Life!, a national Christian youth group founded by Gospel recording artist Kierra Sheard.
The forum, which was held in conjunction with AIDS Care Service (ACS), served as the kickoff event for the HIV-Hope Project, a partnership between Squire and ACS that will host similar discussions on a quarterly basis. The Project is also starting an ambassador program, which aims to help churches develop HIV-conscious ministries.
Later on Saturday, Squire and others on the panel marched with AIDS Care Service staffers and volunteers in the Winston-Salem Jaycees Holiday Parade. AIDS Care Service held its formal program marking World AIDS Day on Monday at its Northwest Boulevard headquarters.
An estimated 35,000 North Carolinians are living with HIV, according to the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, which found that many North Carolinians living with HIV/AIDS have unmet healthcare needs and face stigmas and discrimination.
Closer to home, a recent survey conducted by students in Wake Forest University’s journalism and entrepreneurship programs, found that many Wake students are still uninformed or unconcerned about HIV/AIDS. Responses indicated that only 36 percent of students “always engaged” in safe sex, and four in five surveyed had never been tested for HIV/AIDS. Additionally, almost three-quarters of the students surveyed indicated they have never had contact with an HIV-positive person.
The WFU students, led by Senior Lecturer Mary Martin Niepold, are working with AIDS Care Service to promote the organization’s work in the community and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS on campus.
The class has produced profiles, summaries and newspaper articles for the organization through a joint effort between Wake Forest’s journalism and entrepreneurship programs.