TaRay Tate sat calmly at a table in a room at Macedonia Baptist Church, answering personal questions about his sex life from Sandra Wimberly, a Richmond County Health Department public health educator.
A GED student in the Reaching, Healing, Emancipating, Mentoring, Answering the Call class - an outreach ministry of the church - he had asked to be tested for HIV and said he wasn't at all scared about doing so.
"It is going around; it's growing in our area. It's hectic out here," said Mr. Tate, 24, who revealed that he is intimate, although unprotected, with only his girlfriend. "I know I don't have it. I just wanted to make sure."
According to Ms. Wimberly, there were 1,582 AIDS cases in the Augusta area as of June. On Wednesday, she told Mr. Tate that should he get a positive test result, "it's not a death sentence."
"I don't want you to think, 'My life is over, I can't live,'" she said. "I want you to know there is support for you."
Mr. Tate's test was administered in the midst of Macedonia's and other area churches' preparation for the 18th annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which starts Sunday and ends next Saturday.
During the week, interdenominational black churches nationwide, and a few in Africa, will promote testing and preventative education and prayer for the healing and support of people infected with the disease.
Started in 1989 in Harlem, N.Y., as Harlem Week of Prayer after immunologist Pernessa Seele saw that "black folks were dying like flies and nobody was coming to their bedside, and back then there were over 350 churches in Harlem," the week "took fire" in other cities. Now millions of people in more than 15,000 interdenominational black churches participate, Ms. Seele said by telephone from Richmond, Va., the headquarters for Balm in Gilead, a nonprofit organization she founded. Balm in Gilead mobilizes faith communities to address life-threatening diseases. .
The week provides a context that opens the door for formal conversation that might lead to the churches' starting an outreach ministry, said Ms. Seele, who was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2006. She also was first lady Laura Bush's guest at President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address and named one of Essence magazine's 35 most beautiful women.
With the disease being the No. 1 cause of death among certain black age groups, it's necessary to involve the black church because it's the only institution that reaches the masses, Ms. Seele said.
"It's the one institution that we believe in, we listen to, we organize around. We got to get the church disseminating information, to get people tested because ... regardless of your age, regardless of your social status, regardless of your sexual agenda - regardless, it is the church that can reach the masses of black people in this country," she said. "If you can do some AIDS education, let's do some AIDS education, but if you can't do anything you can certainly pray for somebody."
This year, Ms. Seele has enlisted 13 spokesmen, national leaders from denominations including Episcopalian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Full Gospel and Baptist, to help their congregations.
Bishop T. DeWitt Smith, the president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, said that as a spokesman, it's his role "to talk this thing up ... to call our people to prayer, to action."
"We believe in prayer, and in the power of prayer. We feel it's time for prayer for healing, for a cure, for prevention, for education as well as that our community will become more sensitive to people who are struggling, and their families," he said.
"The church is called to heal the sick; one of the ways we do that is to pray for the sick. We have to believe that God is going to answer our prayers."
Area churches are approaching the week in several ways.
Beulah Grove Baptist in Augusta will disperse educational pamphlets and will discuss AIDS awareness at a prayer breakfast next Saturday.
Members of Springfield Baptist in Thomson, which has been participating in the week for the past five years, will go door to door handing out information. They also will hold a walk, show movies with testimonials, feature guest speakers and join with two other churches for awareness events.
"So many people are scared to talk about anyone that has it. We don't want people to be ignorant," said Tim Foston, the head of Springfield's AIDS outreach ministry. "We don't want people to be afraid of it, but we want them to know about it."
At Macedonia, where awareness week events will include emphasis on HIV/AIDS during programming Sunday and the morning of March 10, the Rev. Gregory Fuller said the church has been too silent and it needs to be at the forefront.
He doesn't agree with churches or people who won't get on board of HIV/AIDS awareness because they say they are abstinence-based.
"What does that mean? I'm looking out for the welfare of our people," he said.
"There's no substitute for God's way, but if you're going to do contrary to God's way, then you've got to protect yourself and the other person.
"We teach abstinence, but they're not hearing the abstinence part, so we hope they hear the part about being safe today so they can live another day to get it right."
Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: Area church events for the 18th annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS
Macedonia Baptist Church: 1828 Wrightsboro Road
Sunday: 8 and 10 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. services. Services to include distribution of prayer bookmarks, red ribbons and an emphasis by the Rev. Gregory Fuller
6 p.m. Wednesday: Prayer meeting with an emphasis on awareness
9 a.m. Saturday, March 10: Prayer breakfast with emphasis on awareness
Springfield Baptist Church: 523 Martin Luther King St., Thomson
Daily: Church will be open for prayer
6 to 7 p.m. Sunday: The Rev. F.D. Favors, other area pastors and Richmond County Health Department health educator Sandra Wimberly will conduct the Order My Steps show on radio station WTWA-AM (1240)
6:30 p.m. Tuesday: AIDS awareness service
Beulah Grove Baptist Church: 1434 Poplar St.
Sunday: Distribution of information
Saturday, March 10, 7 a.m.: Prayer breakfast with awareness emphasis and videos