BALTIMORE – Standing before a small congregation, her voice ringing off the walls almost powerfully enough to send the window blinds swinging, Dr. Gloria Boseman preaches a powerful message.
It could be late Sunday morning at an East Baltimore church. Autumn light is streaming into the room and the smell of baking chicken for the buffet luncheon setting worshipers’ feet tapping in anticipation.
But it is a Friday afternoon at Canton’s Clarence “Du” Burns Arena, where faith leaders and AIDS advocates, most of them from African American communities, gather on what has been uneasy terrain: the place where religious teaching and the struggle to prevent the spread of HIV meet.
Each time Boseman pauses before the audience of 40 people to take a breath, the air ripples with voices.
“The one state that African Americans visit frequently,” says Boseman, “is the State of Denial.”
There is some uneasy laughter, a few “mm-hmm”s. But no one objects.
After all, this is Baltimore. This is a place where African Americans in some parts of the city have a 30 percent HIV infection rate. This is a city where nearly twice as many black men die of AIDS-related illnesses than die from violence. This is a place where the fastest growing method of HIV transmission is heterosexual sex, and where African Americans present with new cases of HIV up to four times as often as their white peers.
This, too, is a place of many, many churches.
“One thing African Americans can agree on is God,” Miranda White-Robeson, an AIDS advocate from Prince George’s County, says in an interview. “We run to the church.”
But Boseman says the church is not always eager to confront the issue.
“We are not dealing with HIV,” Boseman continues, “because we would have to admit that there is sexual activity in the church.”
Boseman reminds the crowd, though, that those who go to worship services go to change somebody. If they sit there in the pews simply to feel good for a couple of hours, then they have not done their jobs.
Heads bow in the richly scented air.
“I have experienced that I can have blinders put on me,” says Jill Smith, a soft-spoken woman who works with the Maryland AIDS Administration, “But I then I have also realized that I can put blinders on myself in order to feel safe and comfortable.”
Also unlike church, this conference is not a place for the safe, or the comfortable.
Smith, like Boseman, has come to preach.
“Of those to whom much has been given . . .” she begins.
“…much is required,” the audience answers.
One of those requirements, Smith says, may be talking about things that are not part of your own core values in order to help someone else.
“Abstinence is the best practice,” says Smith. “However, that is not what is happening now. Not what was happening when you grew up, and not what was happening when I grew up. Yes, we’re supposed to be abstinent. Get real.”
This is difficult for many faith leaders, says the Rev. Terry Thornton, pastor of Sweet Hope Free Will Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore.
“We don’t want to be the ones moving away from our dogma and beliefs,” he says. “If we talk about any other forms of prevention then we are giving up our beliefs on abstinence.”
Luckily, says Boseman, church leaders are not experts in everything. One way of telling people about using condoms or getting tested for HIV without saying so in a sermon on abstinence is to have medical experts come in and talk about it, she says.
This is the aim of Sacred Zion Church’s Project ARISE (Abstinence, Remember, Instilling pride, Self-worth and Education), headed by Edna Reynolds.
With prevention funding from the Centers for Disease Control, ARISE sends what Reynolds calls “foot soldiers” out into areas of Baltimore where there is known to be drug trafficking or sex for sale. The foot soldiers offer incentives, such as food gift cards or hygiene kits, to encourage people to get tested, as well as handing out information on HIV/AIDS.
And always, encouraging people back to faith.
“God may hate the sin, but He still loves the sinner,” says Rev. Thornton. “That’s the mentality the church has to take.”