Joyce MacDonald

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–On a recent Saturday afternoon, Joyce McDonald, 56, walked through the Church of the Open Door in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she has been the HIV ministry coordinator for the past five years.

At an AIDS quilt on a wall, she pointed to patches she helped compile. Each patch represents a person who died from complications due to AIDS.

"There are at least 200 more names of people I need to add," McDonald said.

After years of surviving drug abuse, violent boyfriends and multiple rapes, McDonald tested positive for HIV in 1995.

That made her part of a stubborn, 15-year trend: African American women have been contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, faster than any group of women in the United States.

"When I first came here, I was doing a funeral (from AIDS) almost every week," said the Rev. Dr. Mark V.C. Taylor, pastor of the Church of the Open Door since 1990. "I realized I was in the middle of something huge. Then I began meeting people in the church infected by HIV and AIDS."

One of them was McDonald, who shot heroin in New York drug dens until the day she heard a voice tell her to go to church. She followed, and later got tested at Taylor’s nudging. In 1999, McDonald, also a painter and sculptor, stood before her congregation to talk about her art. In the process, she confessed her HIV-positive status.

Soon, McDonald became the coordinator of a comprehensive HIV ministry that provides HIV testing, an HIV telephone hotline wired to her home, weekly support meetings, community HIV awareness campaigns, and home visits and clothing drives for people afflicted with HIV and AIDS.

McDonald also hosts special discussion events for women and seniors with catchy titles such as "Girls, keep your pearls" and "Let’s sip some tea and talk about HIV."

Balm in Gilead Assists Churches

McDonald’s ministry is one of thousands of religious organizations addressing HIV-AIDS in black communities. One of the largest organizations to take up the task is the Balm in Gilead, based in Richmond, Va., assists churches in starting HIV ministries across the country and in Tanzania, including an annual conference to train pastors and church leaders to take up the cause.

Two years ago, the Balm in Gilead announced a program to work with the women’s missionary societies of three black Methodist denominations to combat health problems, including HIV and cervical cancer.

By establishing regional offices that organize health programs inside churches, the Balm in Gilead hopes to reach roughly 7 million members that make up these national church denominations.

"Women have a major responsibility in HIV and other health disparities," said Pernessa Seale, founder and CEO of Balm in Gilead. "Our denominational project is really connecting women through their faith around the world to be at the forefront of these issues."

In the past year, the number of churches joining the network has increased by 20 percent, Seale said, with the Methodist sector now boasting 34 regional directors of health programs that train churches in addressing health disparities.

Even though anti-AIDS activism is picking up in black churches, where congregations are predominantly female, efforts such as the Balm in Gilead face an enormous challenge.

Since 1985 the number of all U.S. women diagnosed with AIDS has tripled from 8 percent of all diagnoses to 27 percent in 2004.

That means men with AIDS far outnumber female counterparts–roughly 3-to-1–but that gap is closing in large part because of the high rates of AIDS diagnoses for African American women, which is four times the rate for Hispanic women, and 23 times the rate for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2002, HIV infection was the No. 1 cause of death for black women ages 25-34, the third-leading cause for black women ages 35-44 and the fourth-leading cause for black women ages 45-54.

Need for More AIDS Ministries

So far, too few of the country’s 85,000 black churches offer a comprehensive HIV-testing, support and prayer community, said Tony Wafford, director of the African American Community Development Initiative, an HIV-AIDS awareness organization in Los Angeles.

"It’s almost criminal that women support an institution that won’t support them. But if all the women went home, then all the black churches would shut down," Wafford said.

But Carrie Broadus, director of Woman Alive, a policy-oriented HIV-AIDS organization based in Los Angeles, says some female churchgoers inhibit frank talk about HIV and the fact that more than 70 percent of women contract the virus through heterosexual sex.

"There are women in the black church that serve as a barrier to HIV funding because they still have issues with sanctity of marriage and condom usage," said Broadus. "But every other youth in the church is either pregnant or has a baby in the arm. Somebody’s having sex."

Rose Robins-Troupe, president of Health Connections, a health and wellness consulting business in St. Louis, Mo., agrees.

"There was an uproar and uncomfortable feel from the religious community because we were saying ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ on the air," said Robins-Troupe, host of a radio health talk show she started in 1994 on Hallelujah AM 1600 in St. Louis. "If you think it’s not happening in your church, then live on."

Higher Infection and Death Rates

While African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for more than half of the roughly 42,500 new AIDS cases diagnosed in 2004, the CDC reported, and are also more likely to die from AIDS than whites.

The lack of HIV prevention mechanisms in prison and the increase of incarcerated black men have fueled the increase of HIV-positive black women, a 2005 study from the University of California-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy found, using census data from 1982 and 1996.

In 2004, there were about 5,000 prisoners per 100,000 black men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Inside prison, the rate of HIV is five times higher than outside, the CDC reported.

"We know there is an epidemic but women are still falling in the trap, having sex with men and not sure if it’s a monogamous relationship," Robins-Troupe said. "Some women have mates that are incarcerated but not getting an HIV test when they get out of jail."

The provision of condoms and HIV prevention and education programs in prison is a large part of the solution, according to a report by the Washington-based National Minority Council on AIDS issued this month that made recommendations for tackling the epidemic in the black community.

Already, state prisons in Mississippi and Vermont, and some county jails in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco and Philadelphia have begun providing condoms. But setbacks abound.

This past September, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation to allow the distribution of condoms in state prisons that hold about 160,000 people.

Despite the manifold obstacles, McDonald still believes health and spiritual ministries can go far in alleviating the epidemic.

"Some people are really with God but the discrimination is so strong with HIV," McDonald said, standing outside her church’s sanctuary. "But the power of love is stronger than the stigma and discrimination of HIV."

Malena Amusa is a freelance journalist in St. Louis, Mo., her hometown.

For more information:

The Balm in Gilead:

National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS:

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