With HIV/AIDS infection rates reaching pandemic levels within the African-American community, some Black churches have stepped in to fulfill a role greater than spiritual guidance. Merging science and religion, AIDS ministries serve both body and soul as captured by the documentary film “The Gospel of Healing Volume 1: Black Churches Respond to HIV/AIDS”.
“The Gospel of Healing” debuted in Washington, D.C., which boasts the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the nation, this past July. Aptly screening during the 2012 International AIDS Conference, the foremost gathering of HIV/AIDS medical professionals, scientists, and activist in the world, the film chronicles Black Christian community responses to the growing need for primary care and prevention services.
We talked with the film’s director, writer, and producer Paul V. Grant about “The Gospel of Healing” and how faith without works is dead.
EBONY: “The Gospel of Healing” tells a very inspiring story of faith and community, what was the inspiration behind this documentary?
PVG: I began working on the project in late 2006/early 2007 and its inspiration came from my father was a reverend in South Carolina who suffered from a heart condition but believed his faith could cure him. My father had a faith that he believed could move mountains and therefore he didn’t take his medication. Subsequently, his ailment deteriorated to the point that my sisters and I had to stage an intervention to urge that taking his medicine as prescribed would not disrupt or challenge his faith. It was a very emotional and difficult conversation.
From that experience I was driven to direct “Tangy’s Song,”a short BET documentary about HIV-advocate and gospel singer, Tangy Major, who defined healing as God giving her the strength to live with HIV daily. I became interested in producing a follow-up project that looked at how churches were actively responding to the epidemic, by facilitating regular testing, needle exchange and even primary care services for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The BET project provided valuable lessons that led to identifying churches and learning about the local models used in their AIDS ministries.
EBONY: Tell us about the churches and models of care featured in the documentary.
PVG: We documented the Black church leaders featured in the film speaking directly to the camera in their own words. Five HIV/AIDS religious outreach models are featured in the film including Beautiful Gate Outreach Center in Wilmington, DE, Project Shalem/City Uprising in Baltimore, MD, Community of Hope in Temple Hills, MD, The Hats Luncheon of Bamberg, South Carolina, and The First Response Center located in Nashville, TN.
While all the churches offer testing and HIV/AIDS education, others provide full service treatment literally filling in the gaps in the care system. For example, First Lady Renee Palmore-Beaman of the Beautiful Gate Outreach at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware, converted their Sunday school into a part-time primary care clinic by using her knowledge as a registered nurse to set up the facility, which is supported by one of the state’s largest hospitals.
These churches often test more people than other medical care centers in their respective cities. They will minister to anyone and no one is turned away.
EBONY: Why would people go to the church instead of a hospital or clinic? What are the advantages?
PVG: Going to a traditional care system can be scary and/or intimidating and unfortunately the health care system in this country has earned Black America’s mistrust. The benefits of going to the church are that it’s in the neighborhood and people know your name. These churches offer the same full spectrum of services including counseling and triage and people will pray for you — but only if you want it.
EBONY: How are Black church ministries dealing with the stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS and the juxtaposition of a gospel that often preaches against homosexuality, drug use, and sex outside of marriage but states we should love and care for all our fellow (wo)man?
PVG: Pernessa C. Seele, Founder and CEO of the Balm of Gilead, says in the film that everybody can do something and that we have to do our part (according to the need within our communities). HIV/AIDS is affecting many populations within the Black community from the elderly who are often single and sexually active, to young single people to LGBT parishioners and even intravenous drug users. Many of the AIDS ministries we documented express that our belief shouldn’t hinder us from doing something.
Arguing the fine points of literal Biblical interpretation can sometimes slow down our response to the overwhelming need of our community. We all fall short. Who are we to judge? As Rev. Silvester Beaman, Pastor of Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, DE states in the film, “Jesus didn’t ask how people received their condition when he healed them." Too often we’ve done the reverse.
With the rates of all medical ailments being high in the Black community like high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, the church can be instrumental in helping to de-stigmatize preventative services and encourage healthier lifestyles. Imagine if my dad had heard that message.
EBONY: It almost seems the church is leading us back to the days of segregation when Black doctors knocked on the doors to provide us with care. Do you think we’re coming full circle?
PVG: In preparation for the film I was reading a lot of W.E.B. DuBois and he wrote extensively about how our churches were the cornerstones of numerous Black public institutions during the early 20th Century. Black churches may need to go back to that, to address inequalities in our health care system. Why can’t churches have clinics in the same way that so many have charter schools?
Embracing science and the faith is a cultural shift for us, where we often hear “let go and let God." That statement excuses us from doing the work that could heal. This also applies to our support for local agencies that serve our communities. I’ve never seen a collection plate passed during a church service to support a local community- based HIV/AIDS organization. I hope I soon will, soon.
Derek Spencer, Executive Director of the Jacques Initiative, an HIV-treatment program at The University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology, told us that through [the film], we are documenting examples of non-traditional medical environments, which could be the future of health care in underserved communities. In many ways, Black churches are becoming a gateway to HIV-prevention and care services, through strategic community partnerships and creating a space where HIV-testing is nothing out of ordinary.
EBONY: What did you learn about the Black church through “The Gospel of Healing”? How are the church and Black Christians evolving?
PVG: There’s no such thing as ONE black church. We don’t all worship the same as Black people. We have different denominations because of varying theological interpretations and worship practices, but there is a need for all churches to do something to increase awareness, encourage testing and eliminate stigma and fear associated with this disease. All churches have a responsibility to improve whole person, in this life as well as help us get to the next life.
People are looking for messages to help us in this life and to become healthy and whole.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.