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No easy 'amen' for condoms

Pastor W. James Favorite of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in Tampa wants to form a coalition of pastors for an HIV prevention program with screening and counseling services. But churches are loath to recommend the use of condoms.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Pastor W. James Favorite of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in Tampa wants to form a coalition of pastors for an HIV prevention program with screening and counseling services. But churches are loath to recommend the use of condoms.

TAMPA — Pastor W. James Favorite teaches preaching to preachers. His is a broad-shouldered presence on the pulpit. His flowing baritone requires no microphone. He has a poet's sense of rhythm, of accelerating passion and crescendo. The pastor of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, Tampa's oldest black Baptist house of worship, preaches the red off the devil.

He is preaching to a group of black Tampa pastors about HIV. He is laying out his vision for prevention, to be realized by Tampa's black churches. He wants screening, counseling, family assistance. The pastors feed him quiet yeses and amens.

"For a long time, churches have pushed AIDS to the side. We put our heads in the sand."

Amen to that.

"It's not here, not in our churches. Then we found members of our congregations dying. How could we treat them? We didn't even want to shake their hands."

Amen to that, too, Pastor Favorite.

"How do we bring into our teaching the use of condoms? We believe abstinence is the answer, but there are those who will not listen. We have to tell them that the least they can do is use a condom."

Pastor Favorite gets polite silence.

• • •

In Tampa's black neighborhoods, the statistics scream: black family disease. More blacks have HIV than any other ethnic group. One in 85 blacks in Hillsborough County is infected. That is more than four times the rate for whites. The disparity is more pronounced among women. One in every 92 black women in Hills­borough is infected. That is 11 times the rate for white women.

This black family disease — that's what Favorite calls it — preys on even fathers and mothers in the pews, children in Sunday school.

He wants the full gamut of services for his vulnerable congregation, and he wants it based in his landmark church, one founded in 1865 for freed slaves. He wants a partnership with the Health Department similar to one initiated by Florida's black AME churches. AME's Florida bishop has committed to providing a church for HIV screening in every county. They're halfway to their goal.

But pastors whose beliefs are biblically founded get caught in a moral paradox. If they base an HIV prevention program on abstinence alone, they're bound to fail. If they provide the common medically recommended option — condoms — they've compromised their principles. Religion has never been about options.

One church in Miami resolved the paradox by leaving condoms in a garbage can outside the church. Rev. Favorite isn't about to build an HIV outreach program for Tampa's black families on garbage cans.

• • •

To understand the silence Favorite must contend with, talk to Abe Brown.

No one need educate Abe Brown on the devastation of AIDS in Tampa's black communities. No one need convince Abe Brown that religion and medicine pose a powerful partnership against the disease.

Ramrod straight at 81, the retired senior pastor of First Baptist Church of College Hill is the unbending oak staff of Tampa's black religious community. He is Favorite's mentor and founder of Pastors on Patrol, a street ministry that Favorite now leads. Brown has seen HIV face-to-face, on his patrols, in his prison ministry, among ex-inmates, and among wives and babies.

He has seen it in the church pews. "We don't require physicals of people who come to church," he says. "We don't turn away people who come to church for help."

So Abe Brown supports whatever HIV intervention program Favorite comes up with. If Favorite wants to include condoms, that's his decision.

But Brown can't quite let it go at that. He frowns, struggles just to say the word condom. It's not a word he has ever used in his ministry.

Brown was once known famously as Mean Dean Brown — the disciplinary dean at Chamberlain High School. He likes to tell how he patrolled the parking lot, looking for cars that took up two spaces. He wrote down the tag numbers and traced the owners, summoned them to his office. They gaped at him, asked how he tracked them down.

"That's my secret."

His personal feelings about HIV are not that different. You park your car right, in one space. You live right, you sleep in one bed.

Brown will not criticize Favorite's HIV strategy, but the Mean Dean Brown in him can't bring himself to find any good in the word condom. It's another way to sin safely, a cheap detour past the hard road to salvation. It's two parking spaces.

"From the pulpit, we teach abstinence. The Bible says, 'Don't do it.' "

• • •

To understand the need for the churches' blessing, talk to the Rev. Jerry Nealy. He is an associate pastor at the tiny wood-frame Friendly Missionary Baptist Church on Central Avenue. He teaches Sunday school. He is a member of Favorite's Pastors on Patrol. But by now, his name should have been better known in Tampa. He should have been a star in the NAACP.

He broke the color barrier at Chamberlain High. He found the Lord when he was 20. Ralph Abernathy offered him a job with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta and helped him get into Morehouse College. He came back to Tampa to work for the NAACP.

In 1988, he got HIV.

He doesn't want to spell out how. All anyone needs to know is "I got baggage." He lost his job, his name and his home. He kept his infection a secret for six years.

"I was no Magic Johnson. I didn't want anyone to know. What would people say? There was a taboo in the black churches. There was no compassion."

Nealy stopped hiding in 1994, obtaining the medicines that have saved his life. Now 57, he advocates for openness through the Minority AIDS Council in Tampa. He would like the words HIV and condoms to be everyday conversation, "at the dinner table, over the coffee table." He'll talk about his own infection, his own downfall, if he thinks it will help anyone.

Still, he lives in alternate worlds. The faith and church he follows point toward abstinence. His own hard experience points toward choices.

"If they won't accept a spiritual medicine," he says, "in the interest of life, let's offer an alternative."

• • •

To understand how hard it is to commit to the long haul, talk to the Rev. Bernard Smith. He calls himself the "total pioneer, the lone eagle" of HIV outreach. For more than six years, Smith has offered HIV testing at Greene Chapel AME Church in Largo. His was the first in Pinellas.

He has formed partnerships with the Pinellas County Health Department, the state, and the giant HIV-testing company Abbott Laboratories. Together, they launched a pilot screening program at six Tampa Bay AME churches. People came in, got their mouths swabbed. The swabs were sent off for state testing. Those who tested positive received counseling for "life after HIV."

The pilot ended on Aug. 31. Smith called it a big success. But it's over. His volunteers still swab for HIV three times a week at Greene Chapel, but no longer have the sponsorship that paid for food and supplies. Smith would like to move the screening to a separate building. He has been turned down for bank loans. Continuity of support has always been iffy.

Smith has now put almost 20 years in HIV prevention. "Where do we go from here?"

Even he has a problem saying the word "condom." "We believe in abstinence," he says.

Has Smith ever placed a condom in someone's hands?

He pauses for several seconds.

"We don't advertise them," he says. "Our No. 1 focus is abstinence."

But has he ever put a condom in a person's hand?

He pauses again.

"We serve the saved and the unsaved."

• • •

To understand the possibilities of biblical reconciliation, talk to Favorite. He leads his deacons through the Oakhurst Square apartments behind Beulah Baptist on a Saturday morning. Once a month, the deacons knock on doors throughout the downtown Tampa neighborhoods. They're not just selling salvation. They're urging people to come to the church on Wednesdays when a nurse offers basic health screenings. They find every kind of medical need imaginable among those who answer their knock.

Favorite grew up on a Louisiana plantation. He studied teaching at Southern Louisiana University. Where he grew up, the only successful blacks he knew were schoolteachers. If Favorite had ever met a black medical doctor as a child, he is certain he would have studied medicine instead.

One of his friends at Beulah Baptist is Dr. Emile Commedore, director of Florida's Office of Minority Health. When Favorite preaches HIV prevention to fellow pastors, Commedore has his back. He stresses the public health aspects of AIDS, and the innocence of many of its victims — including wives and children. "Condoms are no more than a means to an end," the doctor tells the preachers.

Favorite is willing to debate HIV from a biblical perspective. He is a serious student of the Bible, as well as its Hebrew and Greek roots.

He often refers to 1 John, Chapter 2, Verse 1: If any man sins, we have an advocate with the Father.

Here in the humble Oakhurst Square apartments, words like that resonate. There are many sinners. Even they have an advocate.

There's a Greek word in the New Testament that also resonates with Favorite. Metanoia. Because of its complexity, Favorite likes to apply it to his vision for HIV outreach.

In its biblical context, the word means repentance.

In classical Greek, metanoia has another meaning. It means to change one's mind, to change one's heart.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

To donate

Donations to the Rev. Bernard Smith's HIV screening program may be sent to the Greene Chapel HIV-AIDS Action Committee, 1905 134th Ave. N, Largo, FL 33778.

The series

This is the third in a series of occasional stories looking at how people reconcile faith, reason and religion in their lives. To read the others, go to magazine.tampabay.com.

No easy 'amen' for condoms 11/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 1:43pm]
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