07/26/2012 06:59 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Sex, God, Race, and AIDS

It's been 30 years since AIDS came into focus and dominated the Metropolitan Community Churches with funerals, grief, and love. We were a young, growing, international church. Even with gay men dying weekly, our membership held strong across the country, and churches were being born across the world.

Many died hard and bitter deaths separated from their beloved partners and friends. Others died surrounded only by partners and friends as families of origin broke off all contact. Everyone deepened their love of life, companionship, and spirituality.

Today, thousands are living long lives with HIV/AIDS, but we are waking up from the lull of daily pills to realize that the battle is not over. An estimated 34 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS. Families and communities in sub-Saharan Africa continue to be devastated, and people of color in the United States are affected so profoundly that we must bluntly talk about sex, God, race, and AIDS if we are to even slow the epidemic down.

As a white woman who heads one of the largest international networks established to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people into its churches, I am deeply committed to continuing our healing ministries and our justice ministries that look squarely in the face of race, economics, religion, gender, and so many more factors that affect whether or not we get sick and have access to health care.

As a denomination, we treasure the human diversity in our congregations and are in a thriving relationship with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a network of primarily African-American churches that are open to LGBT people, under the leadership of Bishop Yvette Flunder.

Bishop Flunder and I were among more than 400 faith leaders from all over the world who gathered in Washington, D.C., from July 19 to 23 to reflect on how the faith world can expand their ministries and advocacy around HIV/AIDS. Many of us have now joined the 20,000 people who are attending the International AIDS Conference, currently being held in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years.

As a diverse movement in the United States, we can look back to the 1980s, when primarily white gay men successfully mobilized to demand treatment and public education. An army of lesbians cared for their gay brothers as they lay dying. Today, we must admit honestly that, while many live long and productive lives with HIV, men who have sex with men, whether they identify as gay or bisexual or not, are contracting and spreading HIV/AIDS to women at an alarming rate -- particularly in communities of color.

In 2006 the documentary Out of Control revealed that African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but represent 50 percent of new HIV infections. Black men and women are 7 times more likely to be infected, and black women are 21 times more likely to be infected than their white counterparts.

A research project in 2009 showed that 56 percent of African-American men, 65 percent of Hispanic/Latino men, and 79 percent of white men became infected with HIV through male-to-male sexual contact. Among women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2009, 78 percent of African-American women, 75 percent of Hispanic/Latina women, and 68 percent of white women became infected through heterosexual contact. Deeply troubling is that 70 percent of new infections among youth are in African Americans.

Too often, if we love God, we think we should not talk about sex. We can blame religious leaders for their limits around sexuality, but they come by it honestly. For 2,000 years, Christians have been ambivalent about sex. In early Christianity, sex, marriage, and reproduction were viewed as impediments to full-out evangelism. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church formalized celibacy for their priests, bishops, and pope, but enforcement has been spotty at best and has created a system that has been rife with sexual exploitation of parishioners. Today, despite the reformations, schisms, and revisions, Christians still debate how to channel, respect, and celebrate the powerful intimacy of sex.

The black church has been besieged for centuries by slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, imprisonment, poverty, militarization, addiction, unequal access to education, sexploitation, and other attacks on families and communities. Black preachers have often been shouldered with the spiritual and physical survival of their people. An "us-against-the-world" stance is still a matter of survival.

At times, that work gained boldness as a brave cadre of black people of faith and white allies stood up in the 1960s and gained the world's attention. Then and now, most black preachers have guarded their flock in the context of an emotionally expressive and spiritually personal mode that allowed members to make it through each week with dignity in a war zone of racism.

As African Americans get infected and die at shocking rates, we must all take stock, assess, and act. White LGBT people must intentionally break racial barriers that create de facto segregation. Worship together, socialize together, serve together, and be honest together.

Let's face it. Sexual practices can no longer be ignored, hidden, and secret. Church pastors can no longer use homophobic tirades as ways to raise money or create a pseudo-family ministry. Families in the pews whose loved ones are affected must speak out. We can no longer long for our pastors to preach a word of love; we must demand it.

The good news is that MCC and the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries are collaborating to engage black church leaders in a campaign to avoid the divide-and-conquer strategies that use homophobia to undermine African-American leaders in the United States. And, as the world shrinks, black church leaders are working through the Hope in Uganda campaign to challenge the criminalization of people based on sexual orientation or gender expression.

The 2012 International AIDS Conference will end, and the next chapter will begin. We will take it home and begin conversations about God, sex, race, and AIDS. When we do so, we are expressing respect and love for ourselves and each other. Truth telling and protecting ourselves and each other is sexy. Preaching a gospel that allows people to be who they are -- gifted, sexual, and faithful people -- is prophetic. Have the talk, walk the walk! It is time!