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Clergy Seek Answers to D.C. AIDS Crisis

Denise Rolark Barnes - WI Staff Writer | 11/11/2009, 10:39 p.m.

Patricia Nalls finds it difficult to sit quietly by and listen to government officials jabber on about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the District. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, she is often frustrated by the simplistic solutions that are bandied about a disease that wrecks havoc in the lives of those who have been diagnosed with the insidious virus.

€We make it sound so very simple,€ Nalls said to members of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of D.C. and Vicinity recently.

€What do we do when there is no place to live and no resources to access medications? With so many other problems including homelessness, no food, mental health issues, substance abuse, no job and losing our children to violence, how do you have time to worry about HIV?€ she said.

Nalls runs The Women€s Collective, a non-profit organization for women with AIDS and for women who are at-risk for HIV/AIDS and their families in Northeast. As a person who has lived with the disease for 23 years, Nalls knows there€s no silver bullet to the District€s dilemma.

She joined City Council members, along with D.C. Health Director Pierre Vigilance and Shannon L. Hader, director of the HIV/AIDS Administration, for a legislative breakfast Tues., Nov. 2 at the Willard Hotel in Northwest for a frank discussion with faith leaders who wanted to engage council members, doctors and advocates about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the District.

€Pastors of mega churches and denominations and faith groups of all sorts have joined together to make a serious effort of leading the entire community to address this problem,€ Reverend Frank Tucker, pastor of First Baptist Church in Northwest and chair of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of D.C. and Vicinity said.

Tucker, a passionate advocate who insists on more involvement by the faith community in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the District, said he and his organization are ready to take on the challenge.
€We have made an intentional effort to include all faith groups, the medical community and the media. We believe it is important that all of us work conscientiously to address this problem.€

District politicians weighed in on the issue during the breakfast meeting.

Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), chair the Council€s Health Committee, outlined actions that had already been taken to address the District€s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

€At the time we took over the committee four years ago, there hadn€t been a hearing held about HIV/AIDS in two years,€ Catania said. €There is a reason why we have an epidemic in this city. Nothing was being done.€
Reverend Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church Northwest, ponders the District€s HIV/AIDS crisis at a legislative breakfast hosted by the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of D.C. and Vicinity. Photo by Denise Rolark Barnes
Catania discussed increased health coverage for the uninsured, mandatory testing for inmates entering D.C. jail and funding to non-profits as being several of the District€s AIDS fighting initiatives.

Council members Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who represents quadrant with the highest incidents of HIV/AIDS, also addressed the gathering.
Barry refreshed everyone€s memory. The three-term mayor reiterated beliefs held by both the Council and the church about AIDS. For more than two decades, it was widely believed that the disease only affected White gay males.

€The Black, faith-based community had blinders on,€ Barry said.

€Thank God that most pastors now can see beyond that. They see it is among their parishioners. Thank you for your leadership, but it€s not enough. This is a pandemic, and [since] it is, you have to act like it,€ he said.

In March, the District€s HIV/AIDS Administration released a study which stated that the city had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the United States: three percent of its overall population.

For District residents, HIV is a common disease, said Hader of the HIV/AIDS Administration.
€Once something becomes a common disease, it doesn€t take an extreme lifestyle to come in contact with it,€ she said.

€We have a need to be loved and valued. The church,€ she said, €can help promote respect and value in healthy relationships.€

But, Nalls sees the epidemic from a completely different perspective. She sees women who engage in unprotected sex to get the money that they need to feed their children.

€Please, stop simplifying this as if it is the only thing we are dealing with. Agencies just don€t deal with HIV. We can€t make people take their medicine because we have to clean up so many other things. And, we also have to deal with the homophobia in the church,€ the executive director of The Women€s Collective said.

€Now that€s getting to the real nitty-gritty€ Reverend Tucker said.