Clergy members urged to enlist congregations in the fight against HIV/AIDS

"Who will exhibit love, and not judgment?" Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode delivers keynote address. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
"Who will exhibit love, and not judgment?" Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode delivers keynote address. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 10, 2012

It was in a single gesture of holding hands that evangelist Darlene King first felt the stigma of her HIV diagnosis.

The Germantown minister's eyes were closed and her fingers were entwined with those of other church women as they stood in a circle and prayed during a women's breakfast. King admitted her HIV status as she cried. When the minister opened her eyes, she said, the women who were standing beside her had stepped away.

So King was heartened on Saturday as she sat in a room full of clergy who had come together to learn about how the faith community can cast aside stigma and enlist congregations in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

"There are churches here who are willing to come together to discuss how we can help, how we can minister, how we can support," said King, 52, who was diagnosed in the early 1990s.

The gathering was the Second Annual Faith Leaders and Community Summit hosted by Philadelphia FIGHT, an AIDS service organization that provides medical, counseling, and social services. About 200 clergy and community activists attended the meeting at the DoubleTree in Center City that was cosponsored by Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

The conference included panel discussions on youth education, women's issues, fear and reconciliation, and how to organize an HIV ministry. Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who is now an ordained minister, delivered a keynote address arguing that the clergy's commitment to God demands that they help. Mayor Nutter later told the crowd that the city needed them in the fight against what he called the crisis of HIV and AIDS.

Philadelphia has one of the worst HIV/AIDS epidemics in the nation. According to the city Department of Public Health, 28,688 people had been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in Philadelphia through 2010, the last year for which statistics are available. Nearly 1.3 percent of the population is living with HIV/AIDS. The rate of new infections is much higher than the national average.

Nutter outlined the city's efforts to fight the epidemic, but added that "as faith leaders you have a unique, personal, and direct relationship with your constituents." He called their ability to communicate "far beyond anything I can do as mayor."

Nutter urged attendees to bring HIV/AIDS out of the shadows of the pulpit. Goode gave them a step-by-step plan of action: get educated, preach about it, and start an HIV/AIDS committee in the congregation.

"Who will exhibit love, and not judgment?" Goode said.

While the former mayor did not specifically mention church issues with homosexuality, the Rev. Jeffery A. Haskins did.

Haskins, 57, is pastor of the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in Philadelphia. He is gay and HIV positive.

Churches are wrestling with three issues: homosexuality, women in the ministry, and HIV/AIDS, said Haskins, whose church theology is geared toward acceptance of LGBT and straight individuals. "We need to talk. We have the right to disagree, but we need to have compassion and empathy," Haskins said.

The Rev. Chris Kimmenez, 50, pastor of the Recovery Christian Center in West Philadelphia, agreed.

There is a ranking of behaviors the Bible does not allow, said Kimmenez, who is HIV positive and describes himself as a recovering drug addict.

"We'll throw the gay choir director out, but allow the drummer who is sleeping with every woman in the church to stay," said Kimmenez, who leads his church with his wife, Paula Burnett-Kimmenez.

The pastors viewed the conference as a positive step.

For King, it was a long way from the days in the early 1990s when she first learned of her HIV-positive status. She was infected by a cheating husband who was also a pastor, said King, who has written a book about her experience.

In that prayer circle, so many years ago, there were women who shunned her, and a few who offered comfort. Saturday's conference is a sign, King said, that more congregations are ready to exhibit that same compassion and support.

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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