"In the faith community, we're all in this together," says the Rev. L.C. Ray, who works with at-risk kids in the Asheville area as director of the nonprofit One Youth at a Time. He's talking about AIDS, which has had a disproportionate impact on local minority communities.
"We're talking about an epidemic here that is destroying the African-American and Hispanic communities," proclaims Chaplain Fran Hines of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry.
Nationally, African-Americans and Hispanics account for 62 percent of the AIDS cases reported among men and 81 percent of those in women. The incidence of infection among Hispanic women is 43 times greater than that for white women, according to statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control.
Follow those numbers to the state level and you get a similar picture: Through the year 2000, African-American women accounted for 82 percent of the HIV cases reported in North Carolina, and 78 percent of all pediatric HIV cases in the state involved African-American children.
Locally, the numbers are much lower: 26 percent of the HIV/AIDS patients seen at Western North Carolina Community Health Services are African-American, says Tim Nolan, a nurse practitioner with the nonprofit organization.
But considering WNC's relatively small minority population, that ratio still seems high to leaders in the local African-American and Hispanic communities. And that concern has brought together a group of Asheville-area ministers and health advocates to organize the local celebration of Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS (this year's Prayer Week happens March 3-9). The national event, started by the nonprofit Balm in Gilead, seeks to mobilize "black churches to become community centers for HIV/AIDS education and compassion," according to its Web site (balmingilead.org).
Historically, Nolan explains, AIDS "was not an issue that was talked about or known about in the minority community. The church, traditionally, has been a great influence in the minority community, [so] the idea with an event like [Prayer Week] is to make it OK to talk about."
The week's events will include free testing and counseling, a film forum, worship and singing, and a day of workshops for both youth and adults. Some topics Nolan hopes to cover include setting up a "care" team at your church, HIV and STD "101," and the global outlook for HIV/AIDS.
Addressing the epidemic, explains Ray, must include a range of approaches: "One of our key concerns ... is to work in the area of prevention, but intervention [once someone is sick] is also important. If we are what we believe in, we have to [help] those who are sick and work with our children [for] prevention.
Speaking about the ever-changing nature of the epidemic, Nolan notes, "We're seeing more and more women [getting infected], and heterosexual transmission is now the highest infection method among women." He also points out that most of those infected with the disease were exposed in their late teens and early adulthood.
Hines, meanwhile, estimates that half the women she ministers to in local prisons and jails are HIV-positive. She got involved with Prayer Week through her work with Nolan and Community Health Services, which offers free testing to prison inmates (Hines and other ABCCM volunteers counsel prisoners).
Prayer Week, says Ray, "is a collaborative effort by many sections of our city and county." There's Calvary Baptist Church's Russell Hilliard, a white minister who works in the Hispanic community. There's the Rev. Hines from ABCCM, Nolan and other health advocates from Community Health Services, the Rev. Spencer Hardaway of Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church, and others.
Hilliard, for instance, recalls the first time he met a family that was dealing with HIV/AIDS: He was speaking to a Hispanic couple at his church when the young woman started crying. Hilliard, who speaks fluent Spanish, wondered if he'd said something wrong. The father held the couple's young child in his arms. The young wife confessed that her husband was HIV-positive. It turned out the young man had probably been infected while working as a nurse in his home country.
"We're trying to get the word out [about HIV/AIDS] in the Hispanic community. Unfortunately, they tend not to read English publications like Mountain Xpress, so outreach through the church is crucial," says Hilliard.
Hines adds: "The main goal [of Prayer Week] is to let people know what [HIV/AIDS] is and how it affects us. ... We can't let it slip from our minds, because it [has] reached epidemic proportions."
Even for the faith community, coming to grips with this devastating epidemic hasn't been easy, admits Ray: "We have to be honest with ourselves: We haven't been doing too much [about HIV/AIDS] until about two years ago [when they began organizing the first Prayer Week]. But if we are worth our salt, we should lead on this."
Prayer Week events
The week will kick off with a Sunday-evening worship service on March 3 at Hill Street Baptist (6 p.m.). Other events will include:
• Monday, March 4, a screening of the film The Heart of the Matter (about African-Americans dealing with HIV/AIDS), Johnson Memorial Church (6 p.m.).
• Tuesday, March 5, free testing/counseling, Grace Baptist (6-8 p.m.)
• Wednesday, March 6, Family Night/Youth on Parade, Stephens-Lee Community Center.
• Thursday, March 7, free testing/counseling, St. James AME.
• Friday, March 8, Song Fest, Nazareth First Baptist.
• Saturday, March 9, a day of workshops, Rock Hill Baptist (9 a.m.-3 p.m.).
For more information and directions to each venue, call WNC Community Health Services at 285-0622.