Pernessa C. Seele grew up in the small, all-black town of Lincolnville, South Carolina, where she witnessed firsthand the power of the church to help people. She saw the love and respect her family had for the church and its leaders, and it fostered in her a lifelong passion for faith leadership.
Growing up and moving to New York, Seele and her new church in Brooklyn became involved in the HIV epidemic before the terms “HIV” or “AIDS” had been created. They tended to a sick parishioner, the director of their choir, whom they dearly loved. It was church members who went to his home and found his body.
But later, working at Harlem Hospital, she saw patients with HIV who were not visited by either their families or their churches, who had been left alone, and in those days, often dying.
“All of these experiences created this passion for what I believe the work of the church should be: to be there for people,” Seele said.
And so in 1989, she founded The Balm in Gilead, beginning her efforts with the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, now a national project.
Today, after more than 20 years of bringing together the worlds of faith and HIV, she says the black church is no more homophobic than any other religious institution, despite accusations that are regularly raised in prevention work. “The black church has taken a bad rep on homophobia,” she said. “Because I have traveled the world and I’ve traveled this country, I know that those African American churches that preach homophobia are no more homophobic than any other—white churches, Korean churches, Hispanic churches, and so on.”
At the same time, Seele is acutely aware of the harmful effects of the homophobia that does exist. “People still want to believe the myth that homosexuality causes HIV, and because they’re against homosexuality, therefore, they do not speak about HIV. That myth has created a big problem in the African American community,” she said. In her blog, she spoke more forcefully: “The lingering myth that homosexuality causes AIDS continues to mislead and misguide people to their death or destruction.”
But she says that 30 years into the epidemic, she and The Balm in Gilead “do not have time to beat [these churches] over the head,” when what they see more often is religious leaders wishing to address HIV, but not knowing how. “The Balm in Gilead wants the church to be a center of HIV prevention, of education and advocacy, and compassionate care,” she said. “We work to mobilize these churches and build their capacity to do that.”
Seele also believes churches don’t get credit for just how much they do, especially from the media. People who are not members of the congregation, or otherwise involved, don’t realize that a lot of work is actually being done, including housing and case management.
And, she says, they’re in a perfect position to do the work. “The African American church is the only institution that black people completely own,” said Seele. “It is the second largest employer of black people in this country, and it is the only institution that black people trust. It is the place where people come and gather for information. We may hear ‘Well, I don’t trust the pastor’ or ‘I don’t trust this or that,’ but every Sunday morning folks are gathering at the church. My critics say, ‘Pernessa, there are a lot of people who don’t go to church.’ That’s very true. But I say to you that everybody in the black community knows someone who’s going to church next Sunday. And those people who go bring back the information and disseminate it throughout the community.
“The church is unique,” she continues. “It’s unique in that it provides support in all areas—physical, spiritual, and emotional. That’s different from CBOs [community-based organizations]. CBOs do great work, but the church becomes very inclusive. They will go with you to the doctor’s office and to the hospital. If you have children, they support your children. They embrace your entire family. And they believe in the power of prayer.”
Like Seele, the Rev. Edwin C. Sanders II of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville saw death in his congregation before anyone had heard of HIV or AIDS. He decided then and there that his church should get involved in this new reality.
Rev. Sanders promotes the concept of “Whosoever,” that congregations should be inclusive and affirming, including people of all sexual orientations. Churches that are accepting of homosexuality are called “radically inclusive.” He explains that just as there are multiple interpretations of the Bible, the topic of sexuality is no different. A homophobic interpretation is not one that all churches adhere to. Rather, he believes churches should follow the notion that all humans are divinely created, and that all life is sacred and worthy of respect and affirmation.
Under his leadership, the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church established the Technical Assistance Network, or MICTAN, through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly two decades after the church began working on HIV awareness and outreach. MICTAN has provided an extensive series of seminars around the country to mobilize faith leadership in the black community around HIV/AIDS work, and will continue to mobilize them to work together. The promotion of HIV testing and awareness is a priority, but so much of the work depends on the spirit in which it is conducted, and it is that the reverend preaches about. When people tell Rev. Sanders he’s preaching to the choir, he replies, “In my experience, the choir needs preaching to.” In promoting mutual assistance, he has found homophobic church leaders become transformed by working with gay and bisexual church members. Many such experiences continue to inspire him to promote HIV ministry.
In Chicago last fall, he asked a group of black faith leaders, “Who do you say is not welcome?” He was referring to item number one on a list of six ways to begin HIV work (be welcoming). “Stop and think what that means for the life of your congregation. Anything you deny, anything you hold as a secret will kill you. And we have a community where hiding is killing us. If we end up being guilty of perpetuating that, it is ethically unconscionable.
“A part of my passion around this whole business of HIV/AIDS,” he continued, “is that I’m convinced if we do this work right, it has implications that go way beyond this disease. We’ll address not just HIV, but all the things that keep us from being the people we need to be in our communities. Housing, education, economic development, sexism, homophobia—all of it ends up being part of the equation of dealing with HIV.”
Other speakers in the MICTAN series of seminars included Gail Wyatt, PhD, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist, and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science at UCLA; Cheryl Anderson, PhD, of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois; Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD; and her husband Robert E. Fullilove, PhD, of Columbia University, who discussed rebuilding and empowering decimated black communities.
Although Wyatt discussed sexual health and knowledge within the context of black history, Rev. Sanders took on the job of urging faith leaders to become comfortable discussing sexuality as it relates to their own history. He said, “We need to have the ability to talk about any aspect of human sexuality openly, honestly, and competently. We have to have the ability to accept the sexual preference and activities of others without feeling personally threatened and without moralizing or being judgmental.
“It’s amazing to me in how many instances people feel like they are personally threatened by the fact that a person’s sexual orientation is different from their own,” he continued. “And in this instance, it goes way beyond the whole issue of same gender-loving people or the whole issue of how the relationship between two men or two women manifests itself. In our communities especially, I’m always intrigued by people who go around talking about ‘what we don’t do [in a harsh, hard tone]. We don’t do that. That’s what the other folk do.’ It’s very interesting because I find that most of that is guilt-bound moralizing to feel more comfortable with themselves.”
Pernessa Seele agrees with that. “We have many faith leaders who take the position that their congregations don’t do anything [considered wrong], and we all know that’s not true. We all know that every church is full of people living their everyday lives. A church is not a place where only the holy and the righteous go. They’re all people living their lives to the best of their ability.” She remembers that her mother wouldn’t allow their pastor to see her smoke, even though the pastor himself was a smoker, so she understands that people may hide their true selves where their church is concerned.
“I think that if I had to make one simple statement about how we talk about sexuality in the context of the church it’s to simply say sexuality is a gift from God,” said Rev. Sanders to the faith leaders. “One of the things that has happened to the church is that we have come to interpret sexuality in a way that has put it outside the realm of what we are used to thinking of as a gift. But we need to appreciate the fact that it is a gift from God, that needs to be celebrated and needs to be respected and understood that it’s good. That will help us get beyond the blinders that we have let get in the way of what we can learn and what we can do to understand ourselves as sexual beings. It’s something that can no longer be peripheral, but rather becomes the subject matter of the sermon that we preach, of Sunday school lessons that we teach, whenever we come together for any reason for fellowship and spiritual growth.
“I think that until we do that we’re going to find ourselves in a place where the things that are not being talked about are the things that are going to harm us, and are going to harm us in ways that will continue to perpetuate this disease and the impact that it has on our community. This begins where I think we need to start, and that is, are you comfortable with your sexuality? People don’t easily move to talk about and think about and deal with the ways their own experiences as sexual beings have evolved. And if they do, in many instances, it’s associated with things that are not necessarily positive. It’s often framed in a way that is negative. I have a feeling we might not be here if we were comfortable in a way we need to be with this issue.”
From MICTAN training for faith leaders, taken from The Theology of Sexuality, of the United Methodist Church.
Sexually comfortable people:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The ability to engage in open discussion does not include being forced into conversations where you are uncomfortable. In such cases, listen to your gut feelings, and know you have the right to walk away.
Faith in action
A postcard from Faith Responds to AIDS, established by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, puts it more bluntly, “Do or Die.” The card lists the statistics affecting African Americans and what churches can do to promote testing, treatment, and awareness, as well as scriptural evidence supporting the foundational concept of God’s love of all people. At its website (www.aidschicago.org), the project offers a manual of how churches can do work around HIV, including a chapter on homophobia, stigma, and discrimination.
”We are living in interesting times,” said Pernessa Seele, “and every person of faith—every person of faith—whether they are a member of a church or not, or part of any institution, has the responsibility to address HIV and the suffering that we are seeing in this country. That’s what people of faith should be about—the compassionate business of the whole and not just the one. That’s faith that works, faith in action.”
The co-authors are among the faculty and students of the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh. Contact Amy Herrick at Alh75@pitt.edu.