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Black churches focusing on AIDS struggle

Saturday, March 01, 2003

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For the Rev. Jason Barr, pastor of Macedonia Church in the Hill District, the battle against HIV/AIDS has become an increasingly personal one.

Balm in Gilead activities

dot.gif Tomorrow: More than 30 area churches will hold HIV/AIDS awareness activities in morning worship.

dot.gif Monday: noon to 2 p.m., Pittsburgh Baptist Ministers Conference addresses HIV/AIDS at Trinity Baptist Church, 3415 Ligonier St., Lawrenceville

At 7 p.m., Cheryl Martin speaks at Macedonia Baptist, 2225 Bedford Ave., Hill District

dot.gif Tuesday: Macedonia Church holds a pastoral conference on HIV at Wyndham Garden Hotel Airport. It is open to the public. For more information, call 412-687-8004

At 7 p.m., Mon Valley Prayer Service at Mount Sinai Baptist, Charleroi

dot.gif Wednesday: noon, prayer service at Bethel AME Church, 2720 Webster Ave., Hill District

At 6:30, an evening prayer and Lenten service at Macedonia Baptist

dot.gif Thursday: 11 a.m to 7 p.m., HIV testing at Macedonia. Call 412-687-8004 for more information.

Noon, prayer service at Free Holiness Church of Deliverance, 337 Shaw Ave., Clairton

dot.gif Friday: At 7 p.m., Macedonia Church hosts a Youth Summit on HIV/AIDS.

dot.gif Next Saturday: At 1 p.m., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority holds an HIV/AIDS march from the Hill District Library, at Centre Avenue and Dinwiddie Street, to Freedom Corner, where there will be an awards program.

At 6 p.m., the Southwestern Pennsylvania AIDS Planning Coalition will have a gospel concert hosted by the Rev. Derrick Tines, First COGIC Church, 2508 Centre Ave., Hill District


One of his best friends, a North Carolina pastor, died of the disease in 1988, and in the years since he's watched the disease kill several other ministers and ravage the communities he and they serve.

Now, as pastor of one of the fastest-growing urban churches in Pittsburgh, Barr is ready to use his pulpit to fight the disease.

He and other black ministers will participate in Balm In Gilead's Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which begins here tomorrow with prayer services and awareness activities.

Balm in Gilead is a New York-based organization that encourages black churches internationally to respond to the health issue. It started in 1989 with 50 churches in Harlem and, today, more than 10,000 churches participate.

When people think of HIV, they think of the stereotype of "the drug-abusing homosexual," said Barr, "but statistics prove that HIV affects [the ordinary people] who show up in my church on Sunday."

About half of all new HIV infections nationwide strike black Americans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two-thirds of the new infections are among women and children.

Black women account for 63 percent of all new AIDS cases in the United States. Macedonia, with its largely female congregation, has reason to be concerned, Barr said.

"It's not necessarily about promiscuity," said Barr. "If you're lonely the whole search for companionship can make you vulnerable."

From the pulpit, Barr had planned to spend the first part of the year having a conversation on AIDS.

"I tell the congregation, when you don't have HIV, it is grace, because many of us have taken risks."

There are signs that more black churches are pushing past the stigma about people with the disease and developing ministries and programs that address awareness and prevention.

Many offer testing, support and caretaking ministries.

For churches that do not have programs, it is because social apathy remains a problem.

Many black churches struggle with economic issues. They fight to keep the lights on, to keep the pastor paid and to support local ministries.

"It becomes difficult to look beyond [those concerns] and be relevant," said Barr.

Also, many black churches shy away from discussing sexuality, fearing much of the behavior is rejected as ungodly.

When the Balm in Gilead week is over, Macedonia will continue its counseling and casework with people affected by AIDS.

As the church's social service arm, the Family and Community Enrichment Center does its job by seeking grants and governmental funding.

"If the disease continues at this pace," said Barr, "black churches will have to confront it."

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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