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Commentary: Why won't pastors preach about AIDS?

2/11/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. Ronald J. Weatherford is available on the Headshots gallery.

A UMNS Commentary By the Rev. Ronald J. Weatherford* By the Rev. Ronald J. Weatherford*

Since 1999, I have traveled the United States advocating faith-based AIDS prevention and intervention efforts. I am encouraged that faith communities are beginning to confront HIV/AIDS. However, for every AIDS ministry, there is a congregation that has yet to acknowledge the epidemic is in its midst.

In casual conversation, I always ask fellow clergy if they have ever preached an AIDS sermon. I am astounded by the number of clergy who confess that they have never used the pulpit to educate parishioners about HIV/AIDS.

And why haven't they? Many pastors are stymied by the stigmas associated with AIDS - sexual promiscuity and intravenous drug use. For example, a study of New York City clergy found that many clergy still link the disease with homosexuality - a divisive theological issue for all denominations. Further, a 1992 Hampton University survey of 600 African-American pastors showed that four in five opposed homosexuality, and one in three considered AIDS a divine curse. These attitudes marginalize people living with AIDS.

Historically, the church has taken a conservative stance on sexual ethics. I suspect some pastors fear that a Sunday sermon on such an explicit subject might alienate their flocks. And many clergy are torn about whether to teach abstinence or preach prevention. They simply don't want to risk being perceived as sanctioning behavior at odds with the church's theology. It's easier just to deny the problem and avoid talk of sex, especially since most pastors lack a depth of knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.

A 1996 survey by the Presbyterian AIDS Network found that only 12 percent of pastors were very knowledgeable about the virus' origins and spread; 9 percent about the biochemistry of AIDS; and 23 percent about transmission.

In the age of AIDS, however, what we don't know can hurt us.

Why should clergy preach AIDS sermons? Statistics alone are compelling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 850,000 to 950,000 U.S. residents are infected with HIV. One in four are unaware of their infection.

Of 40,000 new HIV infections each year in the United States, 70 percent are among men and 30 percent among women. Half of these newly infected people are under 25 years old. By 2002, AIDS had claimed 467,910 lives, making it the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States among 25- to 44-year-olds, and the leading cause of death for black men in this age group.

Globally, AIDS is the leading infectious cause of death. An estimated 42 million people worldwide - including 3.2 million children under age 15 - are living with HIV/AIDS. The United Nations has appealed to churches to address the AIDS pandemic. However, charity should begin at home.

Lives are at stake right in our backyard, and silence can be deadly. Clergy have a moral obligation to spread the prevention message and encourage compassion toward people living with AIDS. Pastors must use the power of the pulpit to alleviate suffering, provide refuge and reduce the death toll.

So what are pastors waiting for? Clergy who have not preached an AIDS sermon probably have eulogized AIDS victims - perhaps unknowingly. HIV/AIDS is not someone else's problem. It is the church's cross to bear. Some clergy devote worship services to World AIDS Day and the Balm in Gilead's Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. Even more need to.

# # #

*Weatherford is the author of Somebody's Knocking at Your Door: AIDS and the African American Church. Chairperson of the North Carolina Faith Initiative Brain Trust, he pastors Garrett's Grove and Camp Springs United Methodist churches. He lives in High Point, N.C. He is currently seeking submissions of sermons on health-related topics for an anthology he is editing. For more information, contact him at weathfd@aol.com; 3313 Sparrowhawk Drive, High Point, NC 27265; or (336) 887-4505.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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