POZ Exclusives : Pernessa C. Seele: Faith is the Weapon She Uses to Combat HIV/AIDS - by Lauren Tuck

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September 7, 2010

Pernessa C. Seele: Faith is the Weapon She Uses to Combat HIV/AIDS

by Lauren Tuck

Twenty-one years ago, Pernessa Seele watched as AIDS patients in New York City’s Harlem Hospital suffered. No one came to offer spiritual comfort of any kind. She wondered where was the faith community. Then she went in search of it. She took her belief door-to-door and convinced more than 50 faith leaders to pray with her and implement HIV/AIDS health education and service programs. And so was born The Balm in Gilead. Today, the Richmond, Virginia?based nonprofit is a respected international organization that educates faith communities about HIV/AIDS issues and provides more than 20,000 faith-based institutions with program development and technical support.

How has HIV changed throughout the years?


Folks are not dying like they did when we began, and they’re not in the streets yelling and screaming [in protests]. In my opinion, HIV has become a club in the United States. It’s not the same epidemic where everybody is engaged in some way, whether everybody knows someone with HIV or people lost someone to HIV. The epidemic has changed because some of us veterans are bringing new people into the field who don’t have the history. AIDS is an epidemic that people who are 30 years old have grown up with, so it’s a job to them. They’re not going to lose sleep over the urgency of this disease. The challenge is getting these people to understand that there really are people living with HIV.

You spread your influence through faith-based institutions. But, now, in the age of the Internet, cell phones and constant communication, do you believe that faith-based institutions still have the same influence in promoting health and disease prevention?

Oh, absolutely, especially in the African-American community. I think if you are not in the faith-based community, then you don’t know that most churches have a Facebook page and they are very into multimedia, including texting and tweeting.

A large majority of African Americans still look for leadership from their faith community, but stigma continues to be driven by faith-based communities. It doesn’t matter what ethnic group it is, there are still people who believe that AIDS is a curse. Some people are still not going to take their medicine because they believe they are going to get divine healing or somebody’s not going to touch their HIV-positive son or daughter, or they believe they’re going to get the virus from mosquitoes.

Today, that message presents right here in the United States just as it does in Africa.

And what are you doing to combat this?

There’s only one thing to do: educate, educate and educate.

What do you think about the United States’ newly released National HIV/AIDS Strategy?

Because I’ve worked in African countries where you had to have a national AIDS strategy, I’m very excited that we have one. But I think it’s going to take a lot of work to actually implement it.

I really applaud “the club” of folks who are still on the frontline keeping their head to the plow and grinding away to make sure that HIV/AIDS is addressed in this country. I feel this way even though we are fighting an uphill battle by ourselves because people in the world do not see the AIDS epidemic in the United States as part of the global response to HIV and AIDS.

Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But thank God we have something. I think it’s going to take continuing to work at it. Hopefully we’ll get it right this time.

What are you and the Balm in Gilead doing to address the fact that AIDS is the No. 1 killer of black women ages 25 to 34?

We are funded by the Centers for Disease Control to bring the SISTA program, which uses evidence-based training and a youth focus, to faith communities. I’m really excited about that because even though we’ve been in existence for 20 years we have to continue to move the faith communities to the next level. The other thing that we are doing, which has nothing to do with the CDC, is that I’m constantly bringing that age group closer to me.

We are getting ready to launch a collegiate program throughout our colleges in the South. I think that colleges are such an important focus in the community. And for those of us who are old-school like I am, there’s such a learning curve. We have to stop saying, “Well, when I was a little girl we didn’t do this,” or “When I was 21, we didn’t do this.” Enough of that!

We have to find a bridge where we can have a conversation with this age group so we can stop the spread of HIV to the next generation.

In what ways do you think promoting good health in general, for example through your Health Share program and the ISIS Project to combat cervical cancer, affects HIV awareness?

We launched our ISIS program in 2005. I was amazed that black women were far more eager to talk about cervical cancer and then HIV. I guess that’s because the stigma wasn’t there. But as we got the women engaged and talking about cervical cancer, 1,000 percent of the time that conversation turned to HIV, whether they had an STD, how they were working through their prevention and sexuality issues and all of that.

Today at the Balm in Gilead, we do more than just cervical cancer programs. We keep broadening our efforts to work with more health issues. We don’t just talk about HIV; we talk about health. But we make sure that HIV is a very strong component of any health program. By doing this we find that the faith response is more genuine because it is more inclusive. [When it’s done this way], the brother with prostate cancer or the sister with diabetes isn’t upset because you’re not only focusing on HIV. When it’s a more holistic conversation, everybody finds themselves included in the health discussion.

Has relocating the Balm in Gilead from New York City to Richmond, Virginia produced the results that you desired?

It was a good move, and we’re happy here in Richmond, Virginia. It’s been wonderful, because the South has not had the kind of constant HIV information flow as New York and other major cities have had. In the South, there are people who still believe that you can get HIV from a mosquito! And we’ve found that there are people living with HIV/AIDS in silence trying to do some work by themselves. They’re very excited to have us come and be a part of the conversation. We find that faith communities are really excited to get involved with us because they’ve heard and read about the Balm in Gilead for 20 years. They have been on our mailing list and have been getting our information in silence.

Finally, the last thing I always tell everybody is that indeed there is a Balm in Gilead.

Search: Pernessa C. Seele, The Balm in Gilead, HIV/AIDS, faith-based institutions, African-American community, ISIS Project, SISTA program, Health Share program

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