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The Final Part Of Our 3 Part Series On Living With HIV/AIDS In Mississippi

By Lawayne Childrey | Published 06 May 2014 08:15pm | comments
Exodus Assembly Church in Jackson-Sunday, May 04, 2014

The fight against HIV/AIDS in Mississippi has made its way to the pulpit. Black religious leaders have issued a call to action to help fight the spread of HIV and AIDS in the state. Mississippi ranks 7th in the nation for the number of new HIV/AIDS cases and  three quarters of them are African American. In the final of our 3 part series, MPB's Lawayne Childrey reports on the churches effort to de-stigmatize the virus.

Between moments of exuberant worship and quiet prayer, Apostle Maxine Evans Gray of Exodus Assembly Church in Jackson, infuses the lesson of the day with a message about HIV and AIDS, a topic once  considered taboo among black congregations.

"You do not have to be homosexual to get the virus even though homosexuality does lead in it. But it's not the only situation that causes this. There are many heterosexuals who have the virus. You could have just had sex one time, you could have just made a mistake. I would hate to see your life over because you ignored it and didn't go and see about yourself. Get that testing done."

Throughout history,  the black church has addressed a number of social issues. During a recent summit with religious leaders and health officials in Jackson, C.J. Rhodes, Rector of Oakland Chapel at Alcorn State University said certain topics including HIV/AIDS remains off limits for many congregations.

"When it comes to sexual conversations the church has been very leery to have a public discourse about it. And so I think in the same way that we've addressed obesity and high blood pressure and stroke awareness and all these other things.  We need to say look, this is the disease however you got it. Hey, you got it now, how do we tend to it, care for it and help you to be an ambassador to others to help them not contract it?"

More than 10 thousand Mississippians are living with the disease and African Americans in the state suffer from some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the country. In fact, Blacks account for three fourths of the state's new HIV cases. With those statistics, John Evans Jr. Pastor of Cathedral AME Zion Church in Jackson says religious leaders can no longer remain silent on the issue. 

"We can’t get to the point where we're pointing down at folk and speaking to them in such a negative way, they're afraid as it is. Cause I always believe that you ain't been hurt until you been hurt by church folk. And church folk can hurt you. But we got to learn to be compassionate like our savior was."

Research shows that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the disease. Dr. Amy Nunn, Executive Director of Mississippi Faith in Action, a coalition dedicated to promoting HIV/Awareness across the state says its  not because Blacks are more promiscuous than any other racial group.

"There's a common misperception that people who are infected with HIV are engaged in bad behavior. This is not a behavioral epidemic. African Americans do not engage in any high risk behavior than people of other races."

However, Nunn says socio-economic disparities including access to care, high rates of poverty and limited access to screenings are helping to fuel the epidemic. Andre' Harris, Pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Cleveland says he's seen firsthand how these disparities are affecting the Mississippi Delta.

" HIV and AIDS is growing in the Mississippi Delta. So at this point we're just trying to find ways in order to collect intel to fight this disease. But its gonna take the entire community. The old African Proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. So we need to go back to those proverbs to make sure we're doing everything in our power."

According to the Mississippi Department of Health, over the past year more than 550 new HIV infections have been reported in the state.  Jackson currently ranks third in the nation for the number of new infections among African American men who have sex with men. With those startling statistics, Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber who also pastors, Relevant Empowerment Church says his congregation has already developed a plan to help fight the spread of the disease.

"We're gone love on people, we don't care whether you got HIV or full blown AIDS. And we're going to empower our people to be as knowledgeable as possible so that they are not a part of those finger pointers, that they are a part of the people who open up their arms and embrace people and help to lead them to the proper care and treatment.  We want to encourage people to get tested and understand that this disease is absolutely preventable."

Religious leaders in Mississippi say the conversation about HIV/AIDS must begin in the pulpit and reach the pew so it can reverberate to the streets, to not only save souls but save lives. Lawayne Childrey, MPB News.

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Exodus Assembly Church in Jackson-Sunday, May 04, 2014


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