Historically, Houses of Worship have been a place that inspires change, hope and faith to community residents. In addition to spiritual nurturing, they provide shelter, food assistance and other social service supports. Congregations have come to trust their spiritual leaders to guide them through tough and uncertain times. In these times of high prevalence of HIV/HCV/STI transmission in ethnic minority communities, the faith leadership has another higher calling – to assist with reducing the transmission of HIV/ HCV and other STI’s in the hardest-hit communities. Yes, faith-based organizations are an integral part of the National HIV/AIDS/HCV/ STI Public Health Strategy: to reduce stigma and discrimination, get people screened/tested and know their status, linkage to care for those who screen/ test positive, retention in care over time, and provision of antiretroviral therapy to achieve viral suppression.
The NYS DOH AIDS Institute, Faith Communities Project (FCP) fosters regional partnerships with faith-based organizations and community-based organizations to deliver prevention information, HIV/HCV/STI screening/rapid testing and identify various community supportive resources. The Long Island Association for AIDS Care, Inc. (LIAAC) is the largest and oldest AIDS service organization on Long Island and a devoted member of the Faith Communities Project; as LIAAC’s Chief Program Officer, I serve on the Nassau/ Suffolk County Regional Committee. Annually, there are four faith community programs held that target “What Congregations Need to Know!” Two events are in Suffolk County and two are in Nassau County. Each program runs from 6 pm – 9 pm. In 2013, topics included HIV/AIDS Treatment, Hidden Infections: Hepatitis C/HIV /STI, Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation and Impact of HIV/AIDS on LGBTQ Youth. We were able to reach nearly 200 participants with prevention messages and made available HIV/STI/HCV screening and rapid testing.
On April 24, 2014, the Long Island Regional Committee moderated and facilitated its first program of the year on Impact of Stigma and Discrimination on the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, at the St. John’s Baptist Church of Westbury. Hope Zewou, LIAAC’s Prevention Specialist, delivered a well prepared and thought provoking PowerPoint education presentation. The congregation learned they too could unknowingly stigmatize and discriminate against other members of their congregation who may also be HIV positive. Ms. Zewou presentation was so well received; there were many questions during the Q&A session and not enough time to answer all of them. In fact, the program did not end until 9:30 pm.
After the program’s closing remarks and benediction, participants and presenters continued to dialogue and network. The next faith-based program will be June 24, at The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook from 6 pm -9 pm. The topic will be on Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, HIV/AIDS & Our Young People. In September and November – locations to be announced – topics will be on LGBTQ Youth and Intermit Partner Violence respectfully.
In 2011 the CDC contends that 6,000 Persons Living w/Diagnosed HIV Infection resided in Nassau- Suffolk County; of that number, a little more than half or 58% received continuous care during the year. The relationship between and impact of HIV, HCV and other STI’s has been well documented. African Americans and Hispanics comprise respectfully 18% and 36% of Nassau and Suffolk Counties general population but represent 44% and 28% of newly diagnosed AIDS cases and 36% and 22% of emergent HIV cases. Although people are living longer due to the advances in HIV/HCV and STI medications, we still have a long way to go in reducing stigma and discrimination. As the result of stigma and discrimination, many people are not comfortable with getting screened/tested and seeking medical care and support for their positive diagnosis, for fear of being ostracized by their community. Many individuals don’t know their status they are our friends, family, coworkers and members of our church congregation.
If we are ever to achieve an “AIDS Free Generation” it will take more diverse sectors like faith–based communities working with the government and other community based organizations to reduce the impact of stigma and discrimination. Know Your Status, Get Tested! For more information regarding the next faith-based program coming to your community, or how to get involved with the Faith Communities Project or schedule a prevention program, HIV/HCV/STI screening or testing event at your organization, please contact LIAAC’s Hotline: 1-887-865-4222 and ask for D. Ray Ward.