AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Beyond the high ceiling halls of the D.C. Convention Center, the city is battling its own AIDS epidemic. The levels of HIV are disturbingly high in the black community; nearly five percent of that population is living with the disease. Some advocates argue that black churches should be doing more to fight it.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this story on several faith communities in Washington, including one that began fighting AIDS decades ago.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: More than 30 people lined up outside of a brightly colored van in northeast Washington Sunday, waiting to take an HIV test.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Which one needs a form?

KEYES: As those waiting filled out consent forms, volunteers staffed a table laden with loose male and female condoms, pamphlets, and lollipops.

GABRIELLE WESTBROOK: As often as possible, you should go and get tested.

KEYES: Twenty-two-year-old Gabrielle Westbrook has been paying attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its increasing effect on the heterosexual black community.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If you've ever had sex, go up to that unit today. Take 20 minutes and save your life.

(APPLAUSE)

KEYES: Both the van and the people waiting there belong to Greater Mount Cavalry Hope Church. Bishop Alfred Owen began one of the first HIV ministries in the city back in 1990. But on the heels of inviting dozens of young congregants down to the front and begging them to protect themselves with condoms and to get tested, he preached against homosexuality.

BISHOP ALFRED OWEN: According to the Bible that I believe in, God is not pleased.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KEYES: Long-time activist Pernessa Seele says the greatest challenge to battling the virus in many faith communities is that people still believe it is a homosexual disease.

PERNESSA SEELE: If they have a theological challenge with homosexuality, then that stops them from addressing the health challenge of this person

KEYES: Seele is founder and CEO of the Balm in Gilead, an international nonprofit that has spent 23 years helping black churches find ways to effectively address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Seele says things have improved drastically since the late-1980s but some faith communities are still hung up on the behaviors they connect with the disease. And they think...

SEELE: We don't deal with people who have sex outside of marriage. We don't deal with drug addicts. We don't deal with marginalized people.

KEYES: Even at churches that have run programs to help those battling HIV/AIDS - such as Israel Baptist in northeast Washington - Reverend Morris Sharon says there are still challenges in reaching those suffering from the disease.

REVEREND MORRIS SHARON: If the people that have HIV had more concern about their faith walk, and would participate in the churches - and I know that the churches used to go out and reach and bring people in - but then we could do more.

KEYES: Sharon says his church doesn't discriminate but it has lost government funding for its HIV/AIDS program and its health ministry. And it cannot reassign funds needed for operation, educating youth and helping the people of Haiti.

Reverend Jeffrey Haggray agrees.

REVEREND JEFFREY HAGGRAY: HIV/AIDS certainly afflicts our community in a profound way. But we're also afflicted by murder, by crime; we suffer every ill disproportionately.

KEYES: Haggray is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C., and he takes issue with critics who say the black church doesn't acknowledge the seriousness of HIV/AIDS in the community. He says most African-American churches aren't rich enough to hire staff and put up separate programming to help fight HIV/AIDS.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Holy, holy...

KEYES: Back at Greater Mount Cavalry Holy Church, Katitia Pitts runs the HIV/AIDS ministry, and says the church is finding positive ways to get people to protect themselves. At its mobile van, the church passes out tiny purses.

KATITIA PITTS: Inside is three female condoms, a warming lubricant lotion, so we add a little flavor...

KEYES: Pitts says even if the church and those who need help don't agree on every Biblical doctrine, her ministry turns no one away.

PITTS: So no matter who you sleep with, in our hearts, we don't want you to contract this virus.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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