HUMMING A TUNE
Loving Mercy, Walking Humbly with God
Emilie M. Townes
Saint Paul School of
When I first
encountered HIV/AIDS, it was the late 1970s-early 1980s. I was leading a
Bible study group composed mostly of Black gay men and lesbians. The men
told me of a disease that was sweeping through the Black gay male
community of Chicago. Words such as "genocide," "germ warfare,"
"government plot," and "annihilation" where standard fare in our
conversations as they taught me about the ways in which they were
experiencing AIDS in their fives and in the fives of their friends and
lovers and partners.
In 1990, my
favorite uncle was diagnosed with AIDS. In the fourteen months before
his death, I watched as my mother, aunts, and uncles rallied around him
and helped him have, in Alice Walker's words, an excellent death. They
surrounded him with their love and care. They were able to keep him at
home and he died in his own room surrounded by their love and his
familiar keepsakes and life-long memories.
But is with a
phone call that I want to begin my formal remarks. Eight months before
his death, my aunt--his sister-called me late one evening. "Your uncle
wants you to do his funeral." I tried to explain that this is not a good
idea, but her next words (and the fact that she is, after all my aunt)
stopped me. "He doesn't trust that the pastor will put him away right.
He wants to . make sure that he is put away right, so he wants you to do
it." There was no immediate reply I could make other than "Yes ma’am."
After we hung up
I began to cry. I did not cry for my uncle or my family. These were not
tears of sorrow, they were tears of anger and frustration. What has it
come to, I thought, what has it come to when a Black church that had
raised a man, loved him through thick and thin, seen all his sibling
grow up in it, have my grandmother be one of the pillars of the church
... all this, and my uncle knows on a deep level that he cannot trust
the church that was there when he was born, there as he lived, would not
or could not be there in his death? My tears where for that church and
for the Black church in general because we had ceased being faithful. We
were practicing a provisional love, at best. One that was extended only
when others fit into our definitions of righteous or holy. There was a
weird, if not demonic hierarchy of sins created such that some of us
need not apply for justice or love, or mercy.
In the years
since my uncle's death, I am heartened that more churches, across the
racial ethnic spectrum, have come to see that the call of Micah to "do
justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God" should be part of the
foundation of how we think theologically and ethically when combating
HIV/AIDS in our communities. But I am only heartened, I cannot yet
rejoice. For there are far too many churches that five, breath, and spew
hatred and condemnation when it comes to those who have HIV or AIDS.
They use phrases such as "God's judgment," "hate the sin, love the
sinner," "they should all be locked up," "they should all die" as
testimony to their Ae theologies of loathing. And these phrases are not
just confined to talking about gay men who contract AIDS, but they mark
children, substance abusers, hemophiliacs, heterosexual women, male and
female prostitutes, those received tainted blood through IV transfusions
with this summary judgment.
So I am heartened
to say that there are more churches involved in living out the words of
Micah, but there are many more community based programs that are living
out this religious mandate. In Wyandotte County, Kansas, the American
Red Cross sponsors an HIV/AIDS program that has three foci. Girl Talk is
a series of evening events for women who want a safe and private place
to learn about HIV prevention. Each party is hosted by a woman who
invites five to seven friends, co-workers, and/or neighbors to her home.
The American Red Cross HIV/AIDS program staff is there to provide
practical information and advice such as the best ways to negotiate
condom use with a man. This program uses role play to help women get a
sense of their options.
Teen Girl Talk is
for senior high school students who must have parental permission to
attend or host a party. The HIV/AIDS staff explains the ways in which
HIV is transmitted in terms that those who are sexually experienced or
inexperienced can understand. This program promotes abstinence and role
plays a variety of ways to say "No." However, the staff will discuss in
detail the precautions and preventions one must take if engaged in any
form of sex" activity.
The Working Girl
Luncheon was a biennial event originally designed to help prostitutes
avoid contracting the HIV virus from their clients. The Wyandotte Red
Cross recently expanded the lunches and now they are called Just for
Ladies. These luncheons now serve women from a variety of occupations
and lifestyles. They maintain the focus of giving women information on
how to avoid contracting the HIV virus.
president of the Health Education AIDS Liaison (BEAL) of New York city
cautions that if one receives a positive test, take six months to
educate yourself about all the issues surrounding HIV and do not take
any medicine because it may do more harm than good. His warning is
explicit, "No one would take any of the drugs prescribed for HIV if they
only took the time to read the inserts that talk about the side effects
of the medications." William Richardson of the Atlanta Clinic of
Preventive Medicine believes that people who are HIV positive and living
with AIDS should have the primary say in what type of care they receive.
Overall, the message is get plenty of sleep and exercise, eat a
well-balanced diet, avoid cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs, and avoid
or reduce stress.
are being issued from many quarters because the HIV test remains
problematic because of the continued high number of false-positive
results. This is one of the reasons those who receive an initial
positive test result are tested again after waiting six months. Some
project the test to be wrong as much as 50 percent of the time. In
general, the test reveals if one is antibody-positive. Any antibody in
our bloodstream can produce a positive test result. This means that a
cold, the flu, or prescribed antibiotics can yield a positive test
Atlanta clinic has treated more than 100 patients with HIV and AIDS.
Some choose to take the various HIV/AIDS medicines, others refuse this
treatment and try more natural remedies. But for Richardson, treatment
must be holistic-body, spirit, and psyche--as patients learn to love
themselves as they strive for healing.
advocate peer education by using skits, mini-plays, and other dramatic
presentations about young people contracting HIV. Many youth workers who
deal with high risk youth are incorporating H1V/AIDS education in youth
activities as a part of their general educational philosophy.
the HIV/AIDS coordinator for the American Red Cross of Wyandotte County,
Kansas, repetition is key for dealing with HIV/AIDS in the African
American community--or any community. For Washington,
No matter how
culturally relevant your message is, if it's based on a one-time,
one-hour presentation it won't have much impact. Prevention programs
that change high-risk behaviors take a lot of time. I will go to the
same Laundromat every week for months so I can build trust with the
women who do their laundry there. The first time you talk to a woman
about negotiating with her man over condom use, she may think to
herself, yeah, that's a good idea. But she's not ready to do it yet. But
every time we meet, I bring the subject up again. Eventually, she'll be
ready to experiment with a new behavior.
Because of the
moralism found within any discussion concerning HIV/AIDS, I would
the Reverend Carl Bean story is telling:
I went to see a
client at UCLA, and III never forget this little old black cleaning lady
I saw there. If she hadn't come to clean that man's room, he would never
have gotten his food. The lady picked up his tray from outside the room,
brought it to his bed and began to feed him. She was not a technician
from the dietary department, she was the cleaning lady. Some of the food
had gotten cold and she even heated it in a microwave. I felt like here
was one of my people that really was supposed to be mopping and emptying
trash, but who stopped doing that to help someone. She didn't know about
AIDS either, whether she could catch it or not. But her heart, her true
commitment propelled her beyond whether she could catch it. She was
humming a hymn.
Humming a hymn
may not sound like radical activity at first glance. But don't forget
that humming and singing hymns have a rich tradition of justice and
protest in the African American community. Slaves made it through the
day through humming the spirituals. The Civil Rights movement was fired
by the power of the spirituals and the hymns of the church. So this old
Black cleaning lady knew what she was doing when she called on the power
of a hymn to help her respond to human need.
There are people
of faith in the Black community who are reaching out to five that faith.
The Annual Black Church National Day of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS
is held in several cities and in our nations capital in February.
Support groups are forming in a growing number of African American
churches and more churches have support groups than last year.
Elliot Riviera, a
community program planner in the New York city Department of Health,
trains priests and priestesses of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria to
serve as AIDS counselors. Santeria, which is derived from the religion
of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, is followed by many Blacks and
I-Hispanics/Latinos in the inner city. Its practitioners are
often better able to convey HIV/AIDS information than government workers
or members of the medical profession.
American Clergy's Declaration of War on HIV/AIDS" points the way for the
Christian church. Its points are simple. The mission of the church is to
minister love and support by forsaking no one. This battle must be
fought from the pulpit and through all the institutions of the church.
The church must develop a comprehensive AIDS awareness and education
program regardless of sexual orientation, drug dependency, or lifestyle
choices. The church must work with grassroots organizations to combat
AIDS and act as an advocate on behalf of the whole community. The call
is for compassion, nurture, and advocacy.
As the churches
Re Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, Allen Temple
Baptist Church in Oakland, California, City of Refuge Church in San
Francisco, and Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri
work with the community, a major piece of the priority is advocating
increased support for community-based primary care to ensure delivery of
prevention and care services for the range of health issues, including
those for HIV/AIDS.
The Reverend D.
Mark Wilson, pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA states
it best: in many church communities, including African American, I have
often heard fellow clergy say that it's not important how one gets
HIV/AIDS, and that may be true. However, if we are saying this to ignore
the suffering and the oppression we place on sexual minorities in our
congregations, then it's already too late to help them and ourselves in
our effort to heal the many wounds of AIDS. As Black churches have taken
the Bible and reread and reinterpreted passages of Scripture which once
taught that black skin was a cur-se and an abomination, and as they
heard for themselves the empowering voice of God's love and justice, I
hope that African Americans and others of good will, win again reread
and reinterpret the Scriptures and hear the voices of those within our
community ... that cry out not only to be healed, but more importantly
to be free.
Samaritan Project is an HIV/AIDS advocacy and care organization in
Kansas City, Missouri. It has developed a Care Team plan in which
interested churches or other religious groups can establish a care team
of ten to fifteen members. For churches that do have enough volunteers
to sustain a single team, Good Samaritan arranges interfaith care teams.
Each team is assigned one to four HIV-positive clients who are matched
to the abilities and availability of the team members.
The goal of the
care team is to help HIV-positive people who can remain at home if their
needs are such that extra community assistance can help them stay there.
Shopping, meal preparation, bathing, and helping people get out of bed
are possible ways that care team members help. The care team members are
there to provide supplemental care--not primary care--but they can give
primary care givers a much needed respite.
Samaritan plan recognizes that many potential care team members may be
unable or unwilling to provide personal care, so members focus on meal
preparation, shopping,.yard work, and other non-personal chores that
enhance the quality of life of the HIV-positive person. The point is
that within the team, members are diverse enough in their interests and
skills that the team can provide solid supplemental care.
Dr. M. Joycelyn
Elders, the former United States Surgeon General, has an eight-point
call to the Black Church concerning HIV/AIDS. She believes that the
church must: than concerned about this problem; the church must;
-use tools of
commitment; give time, talent and treasure.
-be the voice and
vision for the poor and the powerless.
-be empowered to
network and use its prestige, power and passion to influence decisions.
and help to develop sound public health policy.
-reach out, be
responsible and be willing to take some risks to save our young people.
-educate our young
people and ourselves, as well as people in our communities, our
businesses and our schools.
-claim victory in
conquering this disease.
Such a call must
not go unanswered and more and more Black churches are responding to
this call. Although the numbers are growing, the Black Church is still
woefully behind the need. Before a church begins an HIV/AIDS ministry,
it is important to become knowledgeable about B11V/A1DS in general, to
be clear about goals and objectives, and to make an honest assessment of
the church's abilities in such a ministry. In Kansas City, Missouri,
Calvary Temple Baptist Church has developed such a ministry to meet the
needs found in its community. In its August 1996 newsletter, "Temple
Times," the church laid out its ten-point strategy for fighting
1. Ask God for
direction in making a start
2. Speak to your
Pastor about starting an AIDS ministry at your church.
3. Learn the facts
about AIDS by: Participating in training offered by Calvary Temple
(2hours) Participate in Red Cross training (16 hours, Calvary staff will
help to arrange)
4. Participate in
AIDS related events and functions AIDS quilt World AIDS Day Black Week
of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS Walk for Life
5. Volunteer to
provide Advocacy or Education. Make regular visits to nursing homes and
skilled care facilities Become an HIV/AIDS educator Make your food
pantry available to people living with AIDS Become a Care Team Volunteer
Assist a patient living at home by: Picking up prescriptions Grocery
shopping Cleaning Making home visits to minister Being a friend by
6. Teach, model and
7. Collect special
offerings designated toward the local or national AIDS service
organization of your choice.
8. Make brochures
available for your church track rack that are sensitive to the
needs of your church.
9. Be sensitive to
the fact that there may be someone in your congregation that is living
with the disease and afraid to tell. Be supportive.
10. Pray for a cure!
Pray for Healing! Pray for our compassionate response.
Of course the
greatest hope is that a cure will be found soon and this conversation
will be stuff of history books. But there is more work for us in the
faith communities of this nation to do in combating the spread of
HIV/AIDS and in providing comfort and spaces of welcome and home for
those who are suffering from AIDS. There is the ability to hum tunes
while we do the work of justice, while we love mercy and walk with
increasing and more faith-filed humility and determination with God.