With their gay and bi brothers and their het sisters suffering the nation’s highest infection rates, black churches long button-lipped about nature’s virus are realizing en masse that ostrich time is over. That’s why the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday debuted a clutch of congregations in cities and towns nationwide linking tributes to the slain freedom fighter to explicit messages about HIV prevention, testing and treatment. It wasn’t quite a clamor, but for some black clergy, it was a start at overcoming traditional taboos against talk of sex—and reaching out especially to men who have sex with men.

At Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist church, the Rev. Daly Barnes Jr. held a daylong HIV seminar on King Day, January 20, where John Street, Philly’s second black mayor, and NAACP leaders talked turkey about the epidemic. “It’s a social crisis, and Dr. King would have addressed it,” Barnes said flatly.

In Nashville, at a gathering of 8,000 to mark MLK Day, the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, which mainly serves the gay community, passed out brochures on its First Response Center, a 9-year-old HIV outreach ministry. 

First Response’s Rev. JoAnne Robertson noted that the burgeoning HIV-related MLK Day events are overshadowed by those during the Black Church Week of Prayer, March 2 to 8, organized by The Balm in Gilead, a New York City– based powerhouse that galvanizes churches around HIV prevention and care efforts.

MLK Day events were backed up by February 7’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, launched three years ago by the National Minority AIDS Initiative and funded by the CDC. More than 100 churches in over 60 cities used the day to put HIV prevention in the pulpit.

Much of the activism was in gay churches, such as San Francisco’s City of Refuge, which offered preaching, testing and support groups. But traditional churches joined in, too, such as Berkeley’s McGee Avenue Baptist and its push to offer HIV tests for the local homeless.

There is still a mountain to be climbed, though. “Some churches are afraid to filter HIV messages to their congregations,” said Bongage Nyathi, a South African who helped plan the Bay Area’s Awareness Day. “Martin King talked about making people free,” he said. “We’ve got to be free to talk about HIV.”