NAACP Issues HIV-AIDS Manual For Black Churches

African-Americans suffer some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the country. The NAACP says it's time for one of the most important institutions in the black community, the church, to help combat those numbers. The NAACP has released a manual especially designed for clergy to assist in discussions about HIV-AIDS as a social justice issue with their parishioners.

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The number of African-Americans contracting HIV and AIDS runs considerably ahead of the rest of the population. And now the NAACP hopes to harness the power of the black church to help. During its annual convention this week, the civil rights group unveiled a new HIV/AIDS manual. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, it's designed to help ministers talk to their congregations about the problem.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The NAACP and churches have long been partners, working together on civil rights and other issues. Evidence of that relationship permeates the annual meeting, whether it's the sounds of an organ in one of the convention halls or the preacher-like tones of impassioned speakers. Shavon Arline-Bradley, the NAACP's National Health Director says the AIDS manual will join the church and the NAACP in a new social imperative.

SHAVON ARLINE-BRADLEY: A lot of people are connecting HIV only to personal responsibility. This is your fault that you contracted this virus. And that's not how the NAACP views it. There are also social issues that affect a person's ability to be able to transmit this disease, and also, in terms of long term access to care - things like poverty, education.

CORLEY: Although African-Americans make up only about 13 percent of the country's population, they are disproportionately affected by HIV. The Centers for Disease control says 44 percent of those with the disease are black. Todd Yeary, a pastor at Douglas Memorial Church in Baltimore, says there's still plenty of myths about the disease - that it's primarily contracted by gays for one - and ministers have been reluctant to address it.

TODD YEARY: We don't like talking about sex from the pulpit. Everybody in the church knows it happens. We have stories and scripture that certainly talk about it, and we'll preach on those.

CORLEY: But typically, not any sermons about HIV and AIDS. The manual provides facts and statistics, which show, for example, that black women with AIDS most often contract it through heterosexual sex. Plus there's practical advice.

YEARY: What types of subject matter would be appropriate for sermons, for Bible studies. How do we make sure that this is a social justice imperative? That we can not be in denial about the effect of HIV and AIDS on our community.

CORLEY: And NAACP Health Director Bradley adds this caveat...

ARLINE-BRADLEY: This manual does not question or change anyone's doctrine. It actually utilizes the theology that they have.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is God's message - attend to matters of justice. 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV.

CORLEY: A video about the NAACP's AIDS Initiative plays in the convention hall at the Health and Wellness Fair. There's lots of activity - high blood pressure tests at one table, discussions about breast cancer at another. Linda Hudson, who works on health issues at the Boston branch of the NAACP and at her church, comes over to take a look at the black church and HIV/AIDS booklet.

LINDA HUDSON: We have a serious issue here among our young people. We have more young women who are becoming positive with HIV. And we have a concern that, in fact, we're going to have to get appropriate information out to the community.

CORLEY: And Mary Hossley, a minister from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, says it's a perfect idea to bring the conversation about AIDS into the church.

MARY HOSSLEY: I think that we can reach more people, because they'll feel at ease more so than, you know, talking with ministers maybe. And just getting the information from, you know, someone like the ministers or either the health care field that's within the ministry, yes.

CORLEY: And with an estimated 21,000 black churches in the country, the NAACP says if only a small portion play a role, that could still have a huge impact on the spread of HIV and AIDS among African-Americans.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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