National HIV Testing Day is June 27. It’s one of many HIV/AIDS awareness days designed to reduce the stigma of testing and living with HIV. The day is also about bringing awareness to an epidemic that has already lasted 40 years too long. In some parts of the southern United States, where the Christian religion extends beyond churches and abstinence is the order of the day in school classrooms, southerners make up more than half of the new HIV cases in America. 

This is one of the reasons that less than 60 days after National HIV Testing Day a more regional awareness day takes place. Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is annually recognized on August 20. This day speaks directly to the disproportionate number of HIV cases in the South. The day is also intended to expose how HIV related stigma and discrimination have led to those higher numbers that confirm the Black community continues to be impacted the most. In 2019, Black Americans in the South made up more than half of all new HIV diagnoses, though they are only 19 percent of the Southern population. 

In a region where religion impacts so many facets of public and private lives, churches are seen as places of support, comfort and healing. Considering this widely accepted notion, it would seem a tangible leap that such influential organizations would be leading the charge in the fight to end HIV.

Sadly, that’s usually not the case. But for affirming and LGBTQ clergy, the fight to end the continuing HIV pandemic is a cause passionately embraced by many. Especially if you’re an LGBTQ clergy member and know how AIDS once decimated the gay community, the battle against HIV is probably closer to heart and home than those outside the community. 

It’s been said time and time again; meaningful change will only come through collective effort. So, outside of awareness days, what’s being done to get more of the faith-based community on board with the help and healing congregants and communities need?

The good news is that work is being done and word is spreading as faith-based leaders come together to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in the southern United States. 

LGBTQ Faith Leader and Advocate Rev. Dr. Shonda Jones. | Photo courtesy of GLAAD

Rev. Dr. Shonda Jones is an LGBTQ faith leader and HIV advocate from Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Most recently in May, she appeared at the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Awards. Sharing the stage and introduced by Dr. Shanell L. McGoy, the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Gilead Sciences, McGoy lamented, “Sadly, we know that too many LGBTQ people have experience trauma from faith communities” and added, “We want to increase the access to equality of healthcare services in southern states.”   

During the 33rd annual awards event in NYC, Jones continued the appeal to the southern faith community by enthusiastically using the platform as a rallying call to action in the eradication of HIV. She shared how faith communities are “working to tell a new story about HIV” in hopes of ending stigma and accelerating understanding to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

Buoyed by The Gilead COMPASS Initiative, Jones hosted a faith conference in Texas (June 21-23) to address HIV and LGBTQ stigma and urge faith leaders to use their pulpits to advocate for acceptance, compassion, health and safety. The Gilead initiative (which sponsors a Faith Coordinating Center at Wake Forest), is working to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southern United States by collaborating with local community organizations and stakeholders to use evidence-based solutions to meet the needs of people living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS. Among the COMPASS Coordinating Centers are Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, Southern AIDS Coalition, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Long before the conference, “Proclamation at the Intersections: Faith, Healing & HIV,” Jones has been steadily connected to the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. “I started working at the AIDS Interfaith Network in Fort Worth Texas, years ago. That was the early ‘90s when people were dying from complications from AIDS, and it was quite common,” Jones recalls. This was my first glimpse of the work that needed to be done, especially from faith communities. Then after that experience, having worked there for years, I was asked to serve on boards within the arena. Now, there’s this recognition that among those [vulnerable] populations are Black people, specifically Black women. As a Black woman, it hits my demographic. There are so many people in my community still impacted by HIV, it fuels the work, and the awareness that HIV is not only still a thing, but we are impacted disproportionately.” 

Hosted by the Gilead COMPASS Initiative Faith Coordinating Center at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, the event’s website describes the effort as “an unprecedented opportunity for interdisciplinary and cross-sectional learning and collaboration between faith leaders, lay ministers, religion scholars, public health scholars, health providers, nonprofit organizational leaders and graduate students.”  

The three-day conference, which was comprised of activities and performances ranging from gospel music to yoga, included 50 speakers and panelists from the southern U.S. More importantly, “Proclamation at the Intersections” featured needed and necessary workshops on how to integrate programming and messages about HIV and faith into spiritually-integrated counseling, community religious education, ministry work and preaching, as well as tips and strategies on establishing partnerships with public health institutions, medical providers, HIV nonprofit organizations and [the big caveat] how to engage faith leaders in training about HIV, sexuality and health. It was an event that, for many who missed it, hope remains it be repeated or at least accessible through recording. 

Anyone working in the south with HIV intervention and prevention knows all too well how challenging it can be to engage faith-based communities. Discussing sexually related issues with clergy and faith communities are often discussions that don’t occur, while HIV and STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) rates continue to go unchecked. Stigma and connections between HIV and the LGBTQ community make discussions even more daunting. After all, who wants to be vulnerable with anyone or any institution that may judge or traumatize them?  

Not many. For this reason, it is even more important that clergy not serving as allies or who are not members of the LGBTQ community understand how harmful discriminatory ideology is. To those clergy members, Jones had plenty to say. 

“What we do in the south is, tell stories. Part of our story is that individuals in the south are disproportionately impacted by HIV. People in our congregations need us. Don’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, Black or white. HIV doesn’t care about any of that. Jesus said, whosoever will – come. And if we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we need to extend the same kind of radical hospitality as Jesus. That means caring for the sick, freeing those who are in bondage and feeding those who are hungry.”

As for that “feeding the hungry” part, there are many in the faith-based communities who have finally put their hearts and efforts where their pulpits and mouths are. The Proclamation at the Intersections: Faith, Healing & HIV conference wonderfully set the table and served the first course of what the southern faith community needs. It aimed to create a roadmap and foster discussion in addressing injustices and stigma heaped upon the undeserving. Seemingly, it did just that, as conference attendees gleaned valuable information and left recharged and ready to apply the knowledge gained. 

As for where it will all lead and what the future may hold for religious southerners and for those who are HIV negative, Jones had this to say: “I think the future is in connecting. Part of what we do through the Faith Coordinating Center is connect different faith communities to do the work. [We’re also] helping the Black faith-based community in understanding the diversity of Blackness and that we are not a monolith. The future of this work must include awareness and celebration.”