07/30/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Moving Beyond the Taboo: HIV/AIDS and the Black Community


The HIV epidemic in the Black community is one of the biggest underreported stories of the past few decades.

African-Americans make up just under 14 percent of the United States' population but represent 44 percent of all new HIV cases. If Black America was its own country, it would rank 16th in the world for HIV rates.

In medicine, doctors are trained to identify the problem, find its root cause and come up with a targeted solution. As activists, we must do the same. For that reason, the NAACP has taken up the cause of educating the Black community about HIV/AIDS -- and we have started with the Black Church.

Unfortunately, HIV is a taboo topic in many Black communities. This lack of awareness has a devastating impact. Even though Black people are more likely to become infected with HIV/AIDS, they are also less likely to know they have the disease, less likely to seek treatment, and more likely to die from it than any other group in the United States. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way toward saving lives; as the Bible says, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Hosea 4:6 [NKJV]

The Black Church is a natural avenue in this cause. Historically, the Black Church has been the prophetic and powerful voice in the African-American community. The sanctuary is the place where we gather to hear a word from the Lord and to receive inspiration to fight for equality.

Earlier this month, on July 14th, the NAACP held its second annual Day of Unity. In nearly 100 cities across the country, faith leaders committed to preach about HIV/AIDS as a social justice issue, educate their parishioners about treatment and prevention, and the normalcy of routine testing.

The campaign for the Day of Unity began two years ago, when the NAACP began a 12-city research tour in cities with high prevalence of HIV among African-Americans. We met with over 250 faith leaders across denominations to identify best practices and challenges when addressing HIV within the Black Church. In response, the NAACP developed The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative.

In the past year, we have begun to see the fruits of our labor. During the inaugural Day of Unity in 2012, pastors in 24 cities preached about the HIV epidemic and held events to educate their parishioners. Pastors from Houston to Philadelphia took up our challenge, with positive results.

This month's Day of Unity built on that success. Pastors spoke about how to prevent the transmission of the disease; held HIV screenings in their churches; mobilized volunteers to work with people living with HIV; and encouraged their parishioners to share the information in their community. We are building momentum to make this a nationwide conversation.

As an ordained Baptist minister, I understand the privilege and responsibility of answering God's call in the midst of life's daunting challenges. The NAACP is proud to support Black clergy and faith leaders who want to extend the healing ministry of Jesus outside the walls of the church into the beloved community. By God's grace, we have the power to end this insidious epidemic.

For more than three decades, the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS in the Black community has been an uphill battle. Thousands of lives have been lost, families have been torn apart, dreams have been shattered, and the burden of this disease remains on our shoulders. This epidemic can no longer continue to take the lives of our present and future leaders.

Roslyn M. Brock is Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People