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Black churches get AIDS call

Conference to focus on how they can push testing, awareness

Friday, February 02, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For more than three decades, the black community has been in a state of medical emergency. Diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease have taken their tolls. Almost twice as many black people as whites die from these diseases.

Pernesse Seele waits for the start of a three-day conference on AIDS yesterday at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, Downtown. Seele is chief executive officer of Balm in Gilead, a nonprofit organization that urges African American churches to be more involved in fighting AIDS. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

And, if that's not bad enough, there is AIDS, said Pernessa Seele, chief executive officer and founder of Balm in Gilead, a New York-based nonprofit organization that urges African American churches to be more involved in fighting AIDS and the stigma attached to it.

This weekend that issue will come into sharper focus in Pittsburgh with "Breaking the Silence -- Building Bridges," a three-day conference that hopes to mobilize local black churches into promoting HIV testing, awareness and prevention.

The Rev. Deryck Tines Mitchell, pastor of Sanctuary Church in Shadyside, and PeerPastors, a group of ministers who meet monthly to discuss HIV and AIDS issues, have organized the conference.

Seele, keynote speaker at yesterday's kickoff breakfast at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, Downtown, isn't a preacher. But with her fiery cadence, references to ancestor reverence and steady supply of Scripture, she sure sounded like one.

Her gospel calls for black ministers to bring a word of hope, healing and help to people affected by AIDS.

Poverty and lack of access to medical treatment are two culprits that strip black people of proper health care, filling pews and pulpits with people who are sick, physically and emotionally, she said.

And, after three decades of the AIDS crisis and burying friends and family, "we don't care enough about our community to address the issue," Seele said.

But, she said, just because it's too painful doesn't mean the black community can put it out of sight.

In fact, the ever-worsening statistics are pushing it out of the closet.

In the United States, HIV strikes one out of every 50 black men and one out of every 160 black women.

Black youths 15 to 22 years old have the fastest-growing rate of infection.

AIDS kills more black men 25 to 44 years old than heart disease, cancer and homicides.

"We need a word from you," Seele told the pastors and 30 or so people gathered for breakfast.

"AIDS is not a sin," she said. "It's a crisis. [Black church,] we need your help with advocacy and leading people to care and treatment."

Be bold with your messages, said Seele, because they must penetrate the deeply rooted taboo that sex and sexual relations can't be talked about in the black church. She called on the churches' mostly male leadership to begin breaking down the walls.

The AIDS rate among black women is skyrocketing, she said, thrusting her arm in the air.

"Why? Because it is being driven by the irresponsible sexual behavior of men.

"We need an open, honest discussion about the sexual behavior of men," including rape, men preying on much younger female partners and even pastors and their sexual responsibility, said Seele.

"We've got to stop feeling that AIDS is homosexual disease. It's family disease. Families are infected."

Arlette Dolphin, executive director of a family enrichment center at Macedonia Church in the Hill District, said she understands the need for the conference.

She recalls a friend's brother who died of AIDS and how the family, who sought his care in another town to avoid shame and guilt, felt as if they were closeted with no one to talk with.

The conference, headquartered at Central Baptist Church, 2200 Wylie Ave., Hill District, continues through Sunday. Its speakers include local theologians, health- care experts and advocacy groups. There will also be gospel concerts and a photo exhibit. For more information, call 412-471-2761.

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