For years, members of black religious congregations suffered silently with HIV and died alone with AIDS. Those who weren't affected thought it was a gay, white man's disease. Those who were ill kept quiet, fearing the stigma.
For years, black pastors shied away from bringing talk of AIDS to the pulpit. But not on Sunday.
At Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in Tampa, dozens gathered for a free afternoon gospel concert to benefit AIDS initiatives. At the morning service, grandmothers in fancy hats held hands and bowed their heads to pray for prevention. One of them was 77-year-old Mary Darien.
"We need to stop burying our heads in the sand," she said.
Her pastor, W. James Favorite, is head of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of Tampa Bay and a member of Pastors on Patrol, a network of more than 100 local churches. He called on clergy all across the bay area to put AIDS and HIV awareness at the heart of their sermons.
One told the story of Jesus, healing a woman with disease in her blood. Another invoked the Good Samaritan.
In her sermon, titled "Compassion Matters," the Rev. Bessie Mohead told her congregation at the New Faith Free Methodist Church in St. Petersburg that they must fight the epidemic through education and abstinence. The role of the church in the black community has always been that of a benevolent caregiver, she said.
Mohead challenged the members to practice kindness, volunteer at a nursing home and become servants to those with AIDS and other disabilities. And she told them to get tested.
Mohead and the Rev. Curtiss Long, pastor of the church, are still mourning the death of one of their congregation members, a woman who died of AIDS a year ago.
Long shook his head sadly and looked off into the distance when recounting the loss.
"In the black community, you learn not to be surprised,'' he said. "We have (had) so much tragedy, so it's not just the AIDS, it's the drive-by shootings and the violence. You learn to cushion yourself for the next (heartbreak).''
African-Americans account for only 13 percent of the population, but make up half of the HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of diagnoses for black adults and adolescents in 2005 was 10 times higher than that of white adults. In black women, it was 23 times higher than in white women.
"That disease," Favorite told his flock, "is certainly one that needs to be reckoned with. It's getting worse in our community."
A bill, being pushed by national black clergy, may get church leaders the funds to do more than preach about AIDS.
Black religious leaders across the country have united to push forward H.R. 1964, called the National Black Clergy for the Elimination of HIV/AIDS Act of 2009. In it, they call for more than $600 million in funding for faith-based prevention, testing and outreach.
Programs would touch runaways, substance abusers and prisoners. They'd teach kids about abstinence and condoms. They'd fund family reconciliation, treatment and the study of biological and behavioral factors that lead to increased prevalence of the disease in the African-American community.
The bill, introduced this spring, has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, its first step in the legislative process.
Long summed up Sunday's message in a few words:
"It's a health issue," he said. "It's not a sin issue.''
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.