October 25, 2006—Pastor Marilyn Chisholm is organizing an HIV movie night this fall for teenagers in the parish she runs in one of Columbia, South Carolina’s most blighted neighborhoods. And the kids in her GoGirlGo! program are about to start learning about HIV, alongside the lessons they’re already getting about body image and smoking.

For the first time in her urban church’s difficult nine-year history, Chisholm is getting some HIV prevention money from the state of South Carolina—and she plans on putting it to good use.

“My members really care about making people aware,” she says of the drug addicts, sex workers and homeless people whom she— inspired by her own bouts with crack and prison—gathered in 1997 to form the Chisholm Outreach Ministries. “We always wanted to do things. We just didn’t have the money.”

South Carolina’s HIV rate ranks tenth in the nation, and Columbia, the state capital, is number 11th among U.S. cities. But the $1 million state grant going out to 24 mostly black churches this year is the first AIDS prevention money of any kind that the state government has coughed up since 1984. “My colleagues ignored HIV because they looked at it as a black and poor disease,” says state Representative Joseph Neal (Dem.).

Neal is one of the driving forces behind the $1 million program, known as Project F.A.I.T.H. (Fostering AIDS Initiatives That Heal). The non-profit South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council conceived of it as a way of using the unique networking abilities of black churches to get the word out about HIV in the state, where three out of every four people with HIV are African American.

AIDS ministries in African-American communities are nothing new; there are more than 20 of them in South Carolina alone and hundreds nationwide. The idea behind Project F.A.I.T.H. is to hook up black churches doing AIDS counseling and prevention with others that would like to do the same—but are short on cash and know-how.

Among the 24 grant recipients, two already have programs under way, adopting families during the holidays, perhaps, or running health fairs, teen groups or Internet projects. They’re receiving $25,000 each to do more of the same while also helping out churches, such as Chisholm Outreach Ministries, where AIDS prevention programs are a first and their own $2,500 to $15,000 grants will lay down a foundation for the future.

Changing minds at churches where AIDS stigma and homophobia are still strong is not part of this project. The consciousness-raising comes later. “We don’t have time [for those who] aren’t ready,” explains Council director Bambi Gaddist, PhD. “But we know that we will recruit more as time passes.”

It was Gaddist who spearheaded the research project behind Project F.A.I.T.H. The Council looked closely at parishes throughout the state and saw great promise for the concept of church-on-church HIV education. Enter Rep. Neal, who also serves as pastor at the Calvary Baptist Church in nearby Chester. Armed with Gaddist’s findings, Neal crossed partisan and racial lines to push Project F.A.I.T.H. through the legislature in a record three months.

Neal says the key was bringing legislators up to date on HIV’s economic impact on South Carolina. Last year alone, it cost the state $6.5 million in lost wages.

The state’s HIV needs go way beyond prevention, boasting as it does one of the longest ADAP treatment waiting lists in the country (it has tripled in length since July). But South Carolina is also one of the states with the most churches per square mile. “Project F.A.I.T.H. gives us the opportunity to collaborate with churches who are innovative thinkers,” says Gaddist. “The possibilities are endless.”