With H.I.V./AIDS establishing itself as the modern-day leprosy, the Balm In Gilead Inc., a New York City nonprofit organization founded 17 years ago to fight the spread of the disease in the African diaspora, wants religious communities worldwide to embrace the afflicted. Until the advent of AIDS in the 20th century, leprosy was the most feared infectious disease. The Balm In Gilead, which espouses healing through education, advocacy and prayer, will host its Second Annual Valentine’s Day Tribute on Feb. 11 at Antun’s Caterers in Queens, N.Y., to honor six religious leaders for their efforts in fighting the AIDS pandemic.
“We started this tribute because we wanted to honor the pastors at the forefront of H.I.V. They are role models to other pastors who might be thinking of doing something in their communities,” says Pernessa Seele, Gilead’s founder and CEO.
Those being honored this year for work they did in 2005 are: the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, senior pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City; Bishop George E. Battle, Jr., presiding prelate of the AME Zion Church Northeastern District, Mount Vernon, N.Y.; Apostle William Brown, Salvation and Deliverance Church, New York City; the Rev. Dr. Glenworth D. Miles, St. George’s Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, N.Y.; and the Rev. Renee F. Washington, Memorial Baptist Church, New York City.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Fact Sheet: H.I.V./AIDS Among African Americans,” African-Americans account for 21,304, or 49 percent, of the 43,171 estimated AIDS cases diagnosed in 2003. The rate of AIDS diagnoses for African-American women is 25 times the rate for white women, and the rate for African-American men is eight times the rate for white men. The leading cause of H.I.V. infection among African-American women is heterosexual contact. Injection drug use was second. There are 172,278 African-Americans living with AIDS in the U.S., comprising 42 percent of all cases.
Through its International H.I.V./AIDS Faith Advisory Board, the Balm In Gilead is assisting faith communities in Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe to provide H.I.V. education and support networks for people living with and affected by H.I.V./AIDS. According to figures released by the UNAIDS’ “AIDS Epidemic Update 2005” on World AIDS Day, of the 40.3 million people living with H.I.V. and AIDS worldwide, 25.8 million are in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Our efforts in Africa are not so much about the different faiths coming together and forming coalitions, but about creating individual partnerships with us first,” Seele says. “We become the network through which they find support and resources to work together.” To date, the biggest obstacle to stopping the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS in Africa is the lack of access to basic health care and treatment, she says. She also notes that the response in Africa to those with the disease is very similar to the response in the United States, with the “community being [immobilized] by denial, misinformation, a lack of interest and enough resources.”
The New York State Department of Health’s June 2004 “H.I.V./AIDS Surveillance Semiannual Report” shows 27,752 people living with H.I.V. in New York City through June 2004, with 20,399 between the ages of 25 and 49, and 12,307 of them African-American. Between July 2003 and June 2004, 664 H.I.V. cases were diagnosed in the Bronx, 651 in Brooklyn, 788 in Manhattan, 343 in Queens and 46 in Staten Island. “Our goal, in addition to education and support, is to stop the spread of the disease worldwide,” says Seele. “It is devastating the African and African-American communities.”
In other H.I.V./AIDS-related activities, “Brooklyn Lives” will host a series of awareness and educational events throughout the borough on Feb. 7 as part of National Black AIDS Day. “Brooklyn Lives” is a project of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of New York City, chaired by former N.Y.C. Mayor David Dinkins.
By Ines Bebea