"Your Body is a Temple": New Study Says Black Churches Have Key to HIV/AIDS Prevention

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day, the international event to strengthen global efforts in the fight against HIV and AIDS. While the statistics in the Black community are daunting (in 2009 African Americans made up only 14 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for more than 44 percent of new infections), there is hope.

According to new research out of Columbia University, Black churches already have existing health outreach strategies that could be of enormous use in HIV prevention for Black gay and bisexual men. The study sought to explore the relationship between church ideologies – of sexuality, bodies and HIV/AIDS – and church mobilization, or lack thereof, in response to the HIV crisis affecting Black gay and bisexual men. Researchers conducted interviews and focus groups at churches in predominately Black neighborhoods in NYC. This analysis of conversations with eighty-one women and men representing six Baptist churches, three African American Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches, two Catholic churches, three inter/nondenominational churches and one Presbyterian church gives us a look into how Black churches can continue (not begin) conversations around HIV/AIDS prevention.

The study notes that Black churches in NYC began to mobilize against HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s by organizing community forums and educational conferences at various churches. Today, Black faith leaders like Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, III, of Abyssinian Baptist Church continue the work. Rev. Butts sits on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) and leads the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.

Most of the churches included in the study engaged in HIV prevention or other HIV-related efforts on some level. Some of the churches had HIV/AIDS ministries, which actively sought to mobilize church members, parishioners and community members in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In general, church responses to HIV focused on support of and prayer for those who are sick, HIV/AIDS and sex education (health fairs, workshops and pastoral counseling), and referrals to prevention  and treatment services in the community. A few churches distributed condoms. None reported specifically responding to the crisis among Black gay and bisexual men.

Data revealed three prominent themes which might help explain the lack of LGBT-focused mobilization efforts:

  1. ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ – The belief that behavior can be distinguished and separated from identity.
  2. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ – The belief that identities and behaviors should be kept private.
  3. ‘Your body is a temple’ – The belief that spiritual and physical health are interconnected.

According to the study, “The YBIT [‘your body is a temple’] ideology may represent a missed opportunity for HIV prevention and mobilization for several of the churches in the study.” The data suggests that the body-spirit connection was often used by pastors and parishioners as way to promote or discourage being straight or gay, as opposed to a way to reduce HIV risk and promote prevention.

One church did indicate that it is feasible for many churches to struggle with their acceptance of people being gay while still supporting and promoting health among congregants and community members who are gay. At an AME church in Manhattan – perhaps the most actively engaged in HIV prevention activities among all of the churches they explored – parishioners spoke of using the body-spirit connection in the context of risk reduction:

Female: "We have to protect ourselves. The only way we protect ourselves is through a barrier mass, to have a barrier there. We don’t condone the kids to have – you know, there’s free will of choice. Your body is the temple of God and if you go take – step out, cover yourself…"

Male: "You have to protect yourself because you love you and our pastor talks about loving and if a person loves you enough they’ll go and get tested, but in the meantime, if you won’t wanna do all that because we are flesh and we want to enjoy sex, here are some condoms. We have a variety of condoms for whatever needs you might have."

In conclusion, the report found that while the ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ and ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ ideologies represent challenges to community-level prevention, the ‘Your body is a temple’ ideology represents a missed opportunity for church-based efforts to prevent HIV among Black gay and bisexual men. The link between spiritual and physical health can be used for HIV prevention/condom promotion and to promote self-care as an act of Christian devotion.

Visit TheBody.com for tools and resources on creating an HIV/AIDS ministry in your church and more. To learn more about World AIDS Day, go to worldaidsday.org and visit glaad.org for updates.