As pastors, our Sundays are spent standing in front of our congregations, delivering messages of faith, community, and understanding. We have committed our lives to serving in the honor of God, delivering love and acceptance to all those around us. As pastors, we fight to protect our people – battling social injustices, discrimination, and the negative forces that seek to impact the lives of our loved ones.
Each Sunday as we speak from the pulpit and every day as we lead our faith communities in the Black Church, we act with these ideals in mind – as do thousands of Black pastors across the U.S. And yet, for all our good intentions, we have turned a blind eye to an epidemic that is ravaging Black communities around the country. As African Americans, we make up less than 15 percent of the population – yet account for nearly half of all people living with HIV in America.
This is a tragedy, and it is a failure in our service to God. Too long has the Black Church allowed for systemic stigma and misinformation to prevent our brothers and sisters from viewing HIV as the social justice issue that it is, stifling the action so desperately needed to change the course of this epidemic. And to no one is this silence more destructive than our young people. Through our children, we can inspire and create change for the next generation. We can build a team of warriors, armed with knowledge and acceptance, to fight HIV as a social justice issue and reduce its chokehold on our communities, creating a brighter future for generations to come.
And yet – in this past weekend’s observance of National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we are reminded that our young people are facing an HIV epidemic that continues on the same concerning trend as previous generations. Of new HIV infections among people 13- to 24-years old, nearly 60 percent occur in African Americans. In our sworn promise and duty to serve in Jesus Christ’s name, we cannot stand by and watch on as thousands more die from this disease. We must rise up and fight this epidemic that is rooted in social justice issues of poverty, discrimination, and institutional racism – and is perpetuated by our silence.
While we grew up in different parts of the country – Pastor Steele in Rock Hill, South Carolina and Pastor Thomas here in Pasadena – having unique experiences with our schooling, families, and communities, we both shared one powerful force in our life, which we returned to each week without fail: our church. Across the country, tens of thousands of Black youth have this in common as well. While their zip codes may differ, the church is a cornerstone of their lives. And this is why the Black Church has a duty to break its silence around HIV, and begin delivering the education our young people need.
It is in this effort that, in 2011, the NAACP and Gilead Sciences came together to create The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative, a national network of faith leaders, religious institutions, and community members committed to ending HIV in Black America. As a core component of its work, the initiative brings together local faith leaders for trainings on how to break the silence around HIV and engage their congregations in action. We are honored to have led such a training in Los Angeles this past Tuesday, when The Black Church & HIV convened an open town hall discussion among dozens of local faith leaders. As both congregants and clergymen, all attendees spoke of the immense power of faith communities to drive positive change and move mountains. It is through the Black Church that we fought for justice in Birmingham and Selma, in Los Angeles and in Ferguson – and it is through the Black Church and faith leader trainings such as these that we will fight and overcome the social injustice of the HIV epidemic.
We encourage our Los Angeles-area faith leaders to accept this call to action and join us in reducing the immensely heavy burden of HIV on our young people through the power of our city’s churches. And, for all of us who have committed ourselves to living out God’s love, take the recent observance of National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to share with your social networks and faith communities the need to break the silence around HIV’s disparate impact on our Black youth, arm each other with this powerful knowledge of awareness, and inspire change to secure a brighter future for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.
More information on The Black Church & HIV and how Los Angeles pastors can join the initiative can be found at TheBlackChurchandHIV.org.
Pastor Curt D. Thomas serves as the Senior Pastor of The Renewed Church of Los Angeles, and Pastor Kelcy G.L. Steele serves as the Pastor of the First A.M.E. Zion Church of Los Angeles. Both are active pastors within the network of The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative, and are committed to creating places of worship that are founded on ideals of acceptance, inclusion, and social justice.