I must be honest and say that I normally skip Word AIDS Day events because they all tend to be too sad and if I’m going to be honest, they also tend to be very boring. Maybe this is because I’m an activist and I hear the information all the time. It certainly isn’t because I don’t care. I just think there are far better ways to honor those we’ve lost than by crying, marching and lighting candles.
This year my friend Donta asked me if I would cover (photograph) a World AIDS Day event that he was doing at a Black church. Right away I was interested because I know Donta believes in preaching to the congregation instead of the choir. I’m all about taking the message of HIV and AIDS to those who need to hear most, instead of gathering with folks who already have the information.
I constantly hear such negative things about the Black church as it pertains to HIV and AIDS, but let’s just be perfectly clear, honest and speak truth to power by saying all churches, not just Black churches, need to do much better jobs at intelligently speaking and educating their members about HIV and AIDS.
Moreover, it’s very easy for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), our government and AIDS Service Organizations to point the finger and lay blame at the churches doorstep, especially Black churches, and even Black people in general, but then take absolutely no responsibility for their complete lack of engagement or involvement with the Black church or in Black neighborhoods where HIV and AIDS continues to go unchecked, unchallenged and unchanged.
In speaking with Donta about this event, I knew right away this was going to be like no other World AIDS Day event I had ever attended. In my heart, it just felt right or as my Ma use to say, “My spirit received it”
And just as I knew it would be, this World AIDS Day event was nothing like I had ever attended or witnessed. There were times when I had to fight back tears because of what took place.
It was different because it didn't focus too much on statistics. In my opinion, this was a great thing because statistics are often wrong, especially when it pertains to Blacks. Nor did it focus on our brothers and sisters, who we love and respect, that have crossed over. Instead we honored them by placing our focus on those living with HIV or AIDS and how churches, particularly, the Black church, can create safe spaces for those of us living and in some cases suffering and isolated with HIV or AIDS. The choir was filled with folks willing to give up their Saturday to educate, encourage and empower the congregation.
The conversations were open honest, empowering, encouraging and to be very honest, uplifting. No subject was left unspoken. Folks heard from men and women, gay and straight living with HIV or AIDS. Treatment educators and advocates provided thoughtful information to help folks understand and come to terms with HIV and AIDS and how it is impacting Blacks.
It was very powerful to hear and see the Pastor, First Lady and members of New Testament church ask questions and really want to make certain their church is based in love and not fear or stigma. How members also wanted to make sure their church is safe for everyone.
For the first time, I walked away from a World AIDS Day event with a feeling of hope for a better and brighter tomorrow because we could have real conversations about sexuality, HIV and AIDS inside a church. For the first time, I saw the message being delivered in person by those who truly love God and want what’s best for folks living with HIV or AIDS. I saw gay men and women speaking their truths inside a church. No one was attacked and no one walked out. I watched as folks set aside their opinions about HIV and AIDS and worked to fully understand that this is not a gay or nasty person’s disease. I saw eyes well up with tears after knowing that folks are treated like outcasts because they are gay or have HIV or AIDS. I saw hearts being touched and minds being challenged and changed. I watched as church members joined hands with people living with HIV and AIDS and held space asking for God’s grace, peace and love. I watched as people embraced gay men and women in addition to those living with HIV and AIDS and for the first time I could no longer say “when will you embrace me” “when will you love and honor me”
"If we are going to truly change how HIV and AIDS continues to ravage and destroy Blacks, then we must be fully visible, embedded and engaged in Black churches and neighborhoods all the time."
Saturday was the first time I attended a World AIDS Day event held inside a church and it was the first time I walked away feeling very good about what just took place, but completely clear on the fact that we have lots of hard work ahead of us if the Black church is going to once again return to being a safe harbor for us.
If we are going to truly change how HIV and AIDS continues to ravage and destroy Blacks, then we must be fully visible, embedded and engaged in Black churches and neighborhoods all the time. We must address the continuing lack of access to education, information, care and treatment in Black neighborhoods. We can no longer simply put out statistics, but provide no remedy or strategy to honestly and respectfully confront the issues that are often spoken of, but never actually addressed or changed. We must think outside the box. We must begin to fully realize that Blacks are being left behind and it has more to do with full access in our own neighborhoods, than it does with us being more sexual or uneducated than anyone else. We must address the lack of complete services in neighborhoods and populations which have always carried the heaviest burdens.
I want to commend my friend Donta for putting together an amazing day filled with knowledge, education, calls to action backed with incredible speakers committed to changing how Blacks move past HIV and AIDS.
I'd be incredibly remiss if I did not say thanks to all the amazing folks who lead breakout sessions and spoke about ways to achieve safe spaces, as well as those who shared their stories.
Most importantly, I must thank the Pastor and First Lady of New Testament along with Marilyn Crosby Pitts, Deborah Washington as well as members of the church who not only welcomed us in, but prepared food and broke bread with us. This is the 4th time this church has hosted a World AIDS Day event and that speaks volumes about this church and dispels the lie which says churches are not involved.
On a personal note, I was raised in the church. I was on the youth usher board and later joined the choir where I led songs and directed. I left because I as I grew up and started to think for myself, I knew the church (building) was not where God would have me to be. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I am a believer, and my FAITH is all I have. I am who I am and where I am because of God, my creator and my FAITH which is immovable. But they will also tell you that I do not believe in organized religion and dogma. I know God loves me and I his promise extends to me without question. He is my creator and I am his child. Black, gay and HIV positive. I am his child and he loves me unconditionally.
World AIDS Day 2016, for me was about Keeping Love Center and honoring those who have passed by working hard to make things better for those of us living with HIV or AIDS.
One of my prayers to God this year was placement of a friend who is strong, unapologetically Black, HIV positive and gay with a love for God. Donta, who was already someone I knew of, but had never been introduced to, is the fulfillment of my prayer. It’s always amazing how God always sends what you need, when you need it. Donta, thank you for being such a huge inspiration to so many people. Thank you for your passion and heart, but most of all thank you for setting and being a great example of a great Black man who is an outstanding leader.
I’m a little emotional right now, my friends will tell you I tend to be a big crybaby at times, but whenever I get discouraged or feel like walking away from my community work, God always shows me in no uncertain terms why I do the work in the first place. This World AIDS Day has reminded me to work even harder to make things better for those who suffer the most. It has reminded to that I’ve been called and my steps have been ordered. The work is not complete and I do not have the right to walk away.
As the tears begin to fall down my face, they are not tears of sadness, but tears of thankfulness for being able to be in the presence of love.
I hope all of you have had a beautiful World AIDS Day and that you took some time to embrace, encourage, and love someone LIVING with HIV or AIDS.