At the True
Church in Buffalo, New York, 700
parishioners, most African Americans, sat last November 24
awaiting Pastor Darius Pridgen's sermon as usual. But that
morning-later commemorated by the congregation as Breakthrough
Sunday-Pridgen put his pulpit to an unusual use: He took an HIV test
before his flock.
"The church, especially the black church, needs
to deal with the rising HIV crisis," Pridgen told POZ. Religious
leaders have long been accused of shying away from addressing the epidemic, which calls
for honest talk of sex and other such "secular" subjects. But now, stunned by the news that more than half of U.S. HIVers are
black - and inspired by groups such as The
Balm in Gilead, which promotes HIV testing in black churches nationwide each June - ministers
like Pridgen are opening their sanctuaries
to prevention and even practicing what they preach by getting tested first.
With his blood drawn, Pridgen corralled his
congregation's teens and told the blushing youths that sex, though
pleasurable, "is not worth giving up everything." After pushing abstinence, Pridgen gave a condom rap, explaining he'd rather teach
them to be safe than to bury them.
Pridgen said that before Breakthrough
Sunday, 20 church members had told the pastor they
were positive. Others confided that they had
never been tested, for fear of HIV's stigma. But that day, 160
parishioners rolled up their sleeves. Pridgen,
who announced a few weeks later that he had
tested negative, plans to prod his parishioners
to test at church
every six months. "Whether we admit it or
not, a great majority of the people we preach to are either gay, drug
addicts or having unprotected sex," said Pridgen. "We have to
deal with it." Can we hear an Amen?