Originally created 06/25/02

Churches support blacks



MACON, Ga. - Dexter Zachary said he wasn't angry after discovering he had contracted HIV from his boyfriend.

"I don't hold it against him," said Mr. Zachary, who was diagnosed in 2000 with the virus that causes AIDS. "I just want to go on with my life and help people."

The 39-year-old credits his positive attitude to the congregation of his central Georgia church, New Pilgrim Missionary Baptist in Macon.

"These are the folks who know me, know what I have and accept me," he said. "When I'm feeling down, they talk to me. It's like this church is my family now."

Like Mr. Zachary, HIV-positive blacks are finding support from a church, an institution that is critical in molding social attitudes toward the disease, say AIDS prevention advocates.

"I think part of it is that the African-American community is bearing such a disproportionate impact of this epidemic that churches have had to respond," said Terje Anderson, the director of the National Association of People With AIDS.

Nearly 40,000 new cases of HIV are diagnosed each year in the United States. While blacks account for 12 percent of the national population, they make up 21,600 - or 54 percent - of new HIV cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Social workers say that without the support of the church it is nearly impossible to discuss prevention and treatment of the disease with many blacks, particularly in the rural South, where religion and clergy provide the basis for opinions.

"I think the community trusts the churches," said Arlene Mutchler, the director of the Comprehensive AIDS Resource Encounter, a secular AIDS service and support center in Jesup. "If the churches bring somebody in, then the congregation believes, 'OK, we can go to this."'

Depending on the church's wishes, AIDS educators will cover various topics, ranging from safe sex to abstinence.

The Rev. Marshall Howell, of Grace United Methodist Church in Brunswick, said the decision to join the growing number of black churches addressing AIDS wasn't difficult.

Addressing the presence of an illness in the community fits in with the mission of any religious institution, he said.

"I think the church should be much more than sermons," he said. "A church is a place where people come for help."

Grace United recently allowed the Coastal Area Support Team, another religiously neutral AIDS support organization, to set up an information resource center on its premises and form a support group.

"People who have AIDS are ordinary folks," said the Rev. Howell, explaining his backing for the resource center. "They're our mothers, our brothers, our sisters and cousins."

Yet not all religious leaders agree with the idea of discussing HIV/AIDS during Sunday worship, especially in white churches.

"We do not have people going into the church to teach gun safety, so why would you have people going into the church to teach sexual safety?" asked Sadie Fields, the director of the Christian Coalition of Georgia, which has more than 60,000 members statewide.