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Christmas in July: An Intersection of HIV and Faith-Based Communities

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Living in Harlem, you can't throw a quarter without hitting a church. Walking to the subway, you'll past at least four before you get to the entrance. Whatever your faith, I'm sure you'll find representation, from the testifying Baptist women with their crown hats to the Muslim men in colorful thobes and tagiyahs waiting outside their mosque. Harlem is most definitely not without faith. Sadly, those same churches reside in one of the hardest-hit areas of HIV infection, and even sadder is that of the many churches in Harlem, few are addressing the epidemic. When you examine all the churches, there is a realization of a gap between the faith community and the addressing of HIV/AIDS.

As someone whose grandfather was a Baptist preacher, I was introduced to church at a very young age. You could say I was threatened each Sunday with what would happen if I missed a service, and dared by my mother to pretend that the money she gave me for the collection basket was going to the church and not to the candy store. It wasn't until later that I understood why I attended church and discovered my own relationship with God without my mother peeking over my Bible. Unfortunately, this was happening around the same time I was discovering my sexuality. Based on what the preacher was saying, I was sure I was going to go to Hell, and by the reaction of the congregation that applauded the minister, they were going to be the procession that made sure I walked through those gates.

It didn't get better when I was diagnosed with HIV. Unlike other diseases like cancer, lupus, and heart disease, I couldn't go to the preacher and have him pray for me. And if he did, his prayers were not ones of support but of extracting this abomination out of my being. My response was to run and seek another place of worship. You can say this was my modus operandi. When I was tired of running, I would sit in the audience, quiet as a mouse, taking directions to the underworld, where I was destined to go based on who I was. Now that I'm older and wiser, I've finally found an affirming church, but for a long time my discussions with God took place in my car, in my bathroom, in the park -- basically anywhere except in a house of worship.

A growing campaign started by a group of local clergy in New York City has started to address the disconnect between faith communities and HIV prevention, through an effort called Christmas in July. This is a week-long event that takes place in the five boroughs of the city, and its goal is to create a discussion between those infected with and affected by HIV and those who preach from the pulpit. In addition, it provides open arms for the LGBT community to stand with their straight brethren, working to bring more churches into the fold of acceptance. Open to all, this relevant series of conversations seeks to build a bridge of understanding and reduce the barriers that keep out those seeking a place of worship.

Reverend Oliver Martin, one of the founders of this movement, creates a diverse atmosphere as he works with other community members to present topics such as addressing HIV stigma in black churches and HIV criminalization, and he organizes a health fair for LGBT people living with HIV/AIDS. Reverend Martin, a longtime ally of the LGBT community feels that although churches, especially black churches, still have some ways to go, many black churches have moved in the direction of affirmation. Unfortunately, affirming churches are often overshadowed by churches that publicly speak out against gay issues. Public impressions are formed not by the welcoming churches but by the ones that know the right negative triggers to make it into the headlines.

In my own experience dealing with churches and providing anti-stigma training, I've observed a shift: Some church leaders who were once against anything relating to the LGBT community are now changing their thinking. The Christmas in July event is one indication that things are changing, perhaps not as fast as we want it to, but years of belief take a while to change, but we see that change happening in the growing participation of faith leaders. One example was a pastor who stated during an anti-stigma training that a year ago he was vehemently opposed to the "gay lifestyle," but after continuous dialogue with gay members of his congregation, his views changed. Now he considers himself a supporter.

The interesting thing about stigma is that it's not just a one-way street. Often, those who have been stigmatized return the stigma. I learned this myself: Based on my experience, I felt that all churches were intolerant of my sexuality, when in fact that is not the case, as the reverend highlighted. Unbeknownst to me, I had stigmatized all churches, but based on my past experiences, I felt justified in doing so. It didn't make it right, but it was where I was coming from. I was someone who had sat in silence, no better than the gay members of the choir who sing at their own funeral each Sunday.

A recent Columbia University study looking at HIV and the church found that many churches included in the study engaged in HIV prevention or other HIV-related efforts on some level. Some of the churches had HIV/AIDS ministries that actively sought to mobilize church members, parishioners and community members in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But even though HIV is addressed, often the LGBT component is not included, as churches are not prepared to have that inclusion in their ministry. According to Kimberley McLeod at GLAAD:

The Columbia study data revealed three prominent themes which might help explain the lack of LGBT-focused mobilization efforts:
  1. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' -- The belief that behavior can be distinguished and separated from identity.
  2. 'Don't ask, don't tell' -- The belief that identities and behaviors should be kept private.
  3. 'Your body is a temple' -- The belief that spiritual and physical health are interconnected.

According to the study, "The YBIT ['your body is a temple'] ideology may represent a missed opportunity for HIV prevention and mobilization for several of the churches in the study." The data suggests that the body-spirit connection was often used by pastors and parishioners as way to promote or discourage being straight or gay, as opposed to a way to reduce HIV risk and promote prevention.

...

The report found that while the 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' and 'Don't ask, don't tell' ideologies represent challenges to community-level prevention, the 'Your body is a temple' ideology represents a missed opportunity for church-based efforts to prevent HIV among Black gay and bisexual men. The link between spiritual and physical health can be used for HIV prevention/condom promotion and to promote self-care as an act of Christian devotion.

The labors of Reverend Martin and Christmas in July can be seen as a step. The greatest thing is that they have been making those steps without seeking the glare of the spotlight or recognition of their efforts. And looking back at the churches I pass in Harlem, I can't say for certain what their positions are on LGBT issues, but it's affirming to know that many are joining the table and breaking bread. And in that bonding, hopefully, I pray, they can show other churches how to join this battle against the tide of ignorance when it comes to LGBT people and HIV.