By JESSICA GRESKO
WASHINGTON _ As the pastor of a mostly African-American Baptist church near Houston, Timothy W. Sloan has known for years that he needed to talk about HIV and AIDS with his congregation.
He worried the 3,000 parishioners at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Humble, Texas, could be offended and leave the church or curtail their giving.
”On a scale of 1 to 10 it was a 6,” he said of his concerns.
Then, a year and a half ago, he joined a group of pastors organized by the NAACP to write a manual for church leaders like himself on talking to their congregations about a disease that has a disproportionate effect on the black community.
Sloan spoke to his congregation about the issue soon after. They surprised him with a standing ovation. Now Sloan hopes others can use the manual he helped create to talk to their congregations. The NAACP recently released it and a 61-page activity manual at the group’s convention in Texas.
Shavon Arline-Bradley, the director of health programs for the NAACP, who helped oversee the manual’s creation, said it makes sense for the nation’s largest civil rights organization to be involved in the discussion of HIV and AIDS.
”People look at us as just civil right rights, and what they’re missing is that health is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time,” Arline-Bradley said.
Religious leaders who helped with the manual said black churches have been reluctant to talk about the disease. That’s in part because the topic is wrapped up with sex and homosexuality, often taboo topics in the church.
”Sex is not something church people like to talk about. It’s something they like to do,” said the Rev. Joseph Smith, the assistant to the pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and one of the people who worked on the manual.
Despite the squeamishness, the NAACP says black churches can play a role in combatting the alarming impact of HIV on the black community. African-Americans make up almost half of all new HIV infections, and blacks are less likely to get treatment and more likely to die of complications from AIDS than any other race.
Sheridan Todd Yeary, a Baltimore pastor who helped with the manual, said he believes the NAACP’s involvement in the project will reassure some leaders that talking about HIV and AIDS is OK. He compared the organization’s approval to the ”Good Housekeeping Seal” of approval for household products.
The NAACP, which has its national headquarters in Baltimore, says the manual and an accompanying activity guide are intended to help pastors to learn more about HIV and encourage them involve their churches. The guides suggest pastors talk about HIV in sermons, connect their churches with groups that serve people with HIV, promote safe sex and access to condoms, and organize church-based HIV screening drives. The manual also includes facts about the disease and passages from the Bible to serve as inspiration.
Over 250 faith leaders gave input on the manual during an 11-city tour conducted by the NAACP. A total of 400 of the manuals were printed, and they are also available online.
Earlier this month, Sloan, the Texas pastor, got a rapid HIV test in front of his church. After services, more than 160 people waited in line, some for two hours, to get their own tests at a church-organized testing drive. Sloan said he hopes other ministers have similar success.
”It’s imperative we begin this conversation,” he said.