From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Why won't pastors preach about AIDS?

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Tue, 11 Feb 2003 15:06:21 -0600

Feb. 11, 2003  News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, 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*

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; 3313 Sparrowhawk Drive, High
Point, NC  27265; or (336) 887-4505.

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represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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