“In order to address HIV/AIDS we have to discuss pre-marital sex. From a spiritual point of view, you are supposed to abstain from having sex before marriage.”–Special Health Resources Chief Financial Officer Carlton Smith.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the oldest African-American civil rights organization in America. Ever since Brandon Johnson took over as president of the NAACP’s Longview chapter, he has taken to heart in a literal sense its mission statement “to insure the political, educational, social and economic rights of all persons, and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.” With this in mind, he recently introduced to the leading edge of the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the NAACP’s newest initiative–Black Church and Social Justice Imperative. Held on March 10, this is a yearly observance of the heartbreaking prevalence of the AIDS pandemic among the fairer sex. The day’s watchword is–SHARE KNOWLEDGE! TAKE ACTION!
Johnson describes how the NAACP has always championed issues that address disproportionality and injustice. AIDS in America and especially in east Texas is becoming part of this issue.
“Some studies have shown that in the South there are areas that are reaching numbers near the numbers of small developing countries in Africa,” he said.
This is a sobering statistic.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cites epidemiological data that indicates the Deep South is experiencing an ominous upsurge in the incidence of AIDS, an increase in excess of that in the rest of the country. There are additional characteristics setting the South apart–there are greater proportions of African-Americans, women and rural residents becoming infected compared with percentages in other parts of the nation. The Deep South is also experiencing above-the-national-average rates of diabetes, stroke and infant mortality. The region’s above-average levels of sexually transmitted diseases, poverty and uninsured persons may be contributing factors to its excessive rates of HIV/AIDS and other health problems.
Additional causes for the Deep South’s health problems likely include widespread poverty, poor education and a weak public health infrastructure. Yet if these were the sole causes of the region’s health woes there would logically be a similar pattern in the Midwestern states. The Deep South’s unique history and culture may be causative factors.
Southern culture may be contributing to the high incidence of various health problems through a traditional distrust of formal healthcare systems (particularly those headquartered outside the South) and an inclination to expect people to remain in the social positions into which they are born. Close examination of these possibilities is vital in that making mere assumptions as to reasons for disease spread in the Deep South may point investigators in the wrong direction. Meticulous research is crucial in order to establish methods for combating the Deep South’s AIDS epidemic. Otherwise the pandemic will likely proliferate, killing southerners and engendering further economic depression
Johnson reports the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in east Texas African-American population has reached disproportionate levels.
“We have to address it here in east Texas, and Special Health Resources is working in tandem with other organizations to educate everyone about this disease,” he said.
He is also passionate about the role of women and the multicultural community in the campaign versus AIDS.
“They [women] are the people men listen to,” he said. “We want all people, White, Black, Hispanic to help fight the disease.”
Considering that millions of African-Americans are regular church-goers and that east Texas is known for having a church on every corner, it would seem that advocacy in the sanctuary is a promising avenue toward combating the epidemic.
Tiffany Mack serves as regional coordinator for Special Health Resources-HIV/Substance Abuse. She reveals the role of women and girls in the fight against AIDS.
“Girls are having sex earlier, and parents are not educating them,” she said. “So they are making unhealthy choices.”
One 17-year-old patient made a memorable impression on Mack.
“She was shocked and broke down crying when she found out she was HIV positive,” she said. “It is about educating them, being young they understand and know not to spread it.”
Anita Schwartz, a Caucasian middle age woman has survived being HIV-positive for 22 years, but has received no support from anyone in her family except from a daughter living in Forney, Texas. Teary-eyed, she discussed her long arduous journey to finding help, and how joining a support group helped her move on with her life instead of allowing her illness to be the center of her existence. A client of Special Health Resources, she moved here from Dallas seven years ago, and endorses all organizations that counsel, financially assist and encourage AIDS sufferers.
Even though black women comprise just 12% of the U.S. Population, they make up a whopping 64% of AIDS patients.
Reverend Wayne Allen works with Wellness Pointe, and is pastor of Gladewater Solid Rock House of Praise Church. He makes young people’s health his personal cause.
“It is sheer ignorance. They do not know about the disease, so they have the ‘It will never happen to me’ attitude,” he said. “More than that, as long as they are cute and handsome they think they are invincible.”
Allen concentrates on working with athletes at Jarvis Christian College and Texas College, educating them about HIV/AIDS. He sees black churches as a promising avenue toward social and health reform.
“Black churches have always been the rallying point for social action,” he said. “They have the audience every Sunday, Wednesday and other occasions. Therefore there is no reason not to use these opportunities to talk about this scourge.”
He believes the reason more pastors and their congregations have not better supported the anti-HIV/AIDS cause, is the social stigma attached to the disease. The faith component outlined in I Thessalonians 4:3 is a crucial passage in representing Christianity’s response to the epidemic. Allen is working on college campuses, and the services are slated to be offered at various churches.
The NAACP and Special Health Services are targeting a vital message that millions of regular church attendees of various races could spread throughout the country. Special Health Resources Chief Financial Officer Carlton Smith bluntly pointed out a promising solution to the HIV/AIDS problem.
“In order to address HIV/AIDS we have to discuss pre-marital sex. From a spiritual point of view, you are supposed to abstain from having sex before marriage,” he said. “If you get past the stigma, you will get to the reality, and then we can do something about it.”
Smith also expressed his relief that some pastors are already using the pulpit as a medium to spread the anti-HIV/AIDS gospel. He also regards drugs, liquor and the high incarceration rates of blacks as major contributing factors to the prevalence of AIDS in the black community.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention urges everybody aged 18 to 65 to get tested for the disease. Free testing schedules are available 8:00 am. to 5:00 pm. at 2030 South High Street in Longview.
By Kelly Bell