POZ Exclusives : Believe It or Not - by James Wortman

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May 9, 2007

Believe It or Not

by James Wortman

Having religious faith and the support of a religious community can bolster the health of anyone with an illness—sometimes as much as medicine itself. This is not always the case for those living with HIV, however, who may not be welcome to pull up a prayer mat, kneel in a pew or read from the Torah because of HIV stigma and conservative teachings about human behavior. “If I’m a person who’s positive and I want to get healed, I’m not going to go to a place that’s going to teach me that I got [the virus] because of my immorality,” says Darlene Cheek of Balm in Gilead, which fosters HIV awareness and support in African-American churches.

A new study launched last week at the University of Cincinnati proposes to measure the effects on positive Americans of both the growing number of supportive religious networks and the discriminatory attitudes that pervade many U.S. places of worship. Researchers Magdalena Szaflarski, PhD, and Joel Tsevat, MD, at UC’s Institute for the Study of Health, will poll 150 different religious organizations in Greater Cincinnati as well as 60 HIV-positive individuals who may or may not have felt welcomed by their congregations.

Such information hasn't been collected since the 1990s, leaving a period of great change in the HIV epidemic and organized religion overlooked. Thousands of religious institutions have implemented HIV awareness campaigns in the intervening years. And it has become more and more common for HIV-positive members to disclose, not to mention to spur the institution itself to form support groups and implement testing and other HIV programs.

Still, another UC study released in December showed continuing troubles. Twenty-four percent of the positive practioners studied felt alienated by their religious communities, 60 percent did not feel welcome and 10 percent changed their place of worship because of their status. “Because of the stigma associated with the diagnosis, it can work both ways,” says Tsevat, who coauthored that study too. “[Spirituality] can be a benefit for the patient or have detrimental effects if they feel ostracized.”

Religious leaders have watched this struggle play out since the ‘80s with particular concern—some with a more personal investment than others.

Oliver Martin, who is HIV positive, is cochair of the Global HIV/AIDS Ministry at Riverside Church in New York City. He says his church has never made him feel unwanted—and believes his health has benefited from the arrangement. “My faith lets me be comfortable in my own skin,” says Martin, who was diagnosed in 1986 and went on meds in 1996. “But it also gives me the ability to adhere to the medications in the prescribed manner.”

As a member of the board of directors for the AIDS Service Center of Lower Manhattan, Martin works with religious leaders from a range of faith-based institutions, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish organizations, in a spiritual outreach program to provide testing and access to care.

Kansas City, Missouri, Pastor Eric Williams, on the other hand, saw the worst kind of HIV stigma firsthand, and then played a part in heightening awareness. Williams, now pastor of Calvary Temple Church, recalls the day 15 years back that he was asked to perform a funeral service for a 26-year-old man who had died of AIDS. Williams says the man’s own pastor had refused to show up.

Williams has since spearheaded several faith-based outreach and prevention programs at Calvary Temple, including a program called “The Talent of the Next Generation,” which trains African-American youth how to respond to HIV/AIDS and other community issues.

The Cincinnati researchers hope their findings, to be collected over a period of two years, will serve as yet another tool for religious leaders seeking to bridge the sometimes perilous gap between religion and HIV. “AIDS hits home,” says Williams. “But ministers can respond to pain—that’s what we do.”


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