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Philadelphia clergy increase AIDS awareness and Host HIV Testing
  11/15/2010 2:09 PM
By Kia Gregory
Phil Inquirer Staff Writer
From the pulpit of St. Paul's Baptist Church in Spring Garden, the Rev. Leslie Callahan preached a message of urgency that many churches have shied away from.
"The reason why the issue of AIDS is a matter of emphasis, the reason why the issue of HIV is a matter of emphasis in the city of Philadelphia today, is because there is a crisis," Callahan, dressed in a white robe, told the congregation in a slow, stirring cadence. "It is a crisis of knowledge."
"Unbelievable," she continued, "that after 30 years of AIDS being in the public eye there are still folks who lack knowledge about how AIDS is transmitted."
Callahan's sermon was part of a citywide effort by more than 100 houses of worship to raise awareness about AIDS in Philadelphia, where the rate of HIV infection is devastating the African American community.
Over the coming weeks, organizers say, at least 30 houses of worship, including St. Paul's, will host HIV testing on site, and dozens of pastors will craft their sermons around getting tested and talking to family and friends about HIV.
At St. Paul's, the church bulletin also contained information about HIV.
On Sunday, Callahan punctuated her sermon on struggle and redemption - titled "I Dream A World" - with sobering statistics:
About 20 percent of people living with HIV in Philadelphia do not know it. "And if they don't know it, surely their partners don't know it," Callahan said. "And can't do anything about it. They're in crisis."
Callahan also sought to shatter any myths.
"It's not just a disease of gay, white men," she said. In fact, she preached, the majority of new infections are among the city's heterosexuals, and African Americans outpace all other groups.
"We are in crisis here in Philadelphia," Callahan repeated.
She then spoke of other crises African Americans have faced, for generations: slavery, segregation, disparate education, tainted criminal justice.
"And we survived!" she shouted. "Some of us have more than survived, we have even managed to thrive. Over and over again, we have risen to the challenge."
To confront HIV/AIDS, she said, "we can all get tested. We can all encourage everyone we know to get tested. We can stop HIV and AIDS, if we dare to dream a different world."
After the sermon came communion, followed by hugs and well wishes. The sanctuary emptied, with some holding on to Callahan's words.
"It was inspiring," said church member Lisa Miller, 50. "We have to work this out as a church and a community. Like she said, we can do that just by getting tested. We need to be the change. We need to be informed, and educated."
Downstairs in the church basement, Doris Whitehead also reflected on the day's message. Over a plate of food, Whitehead, 48, said that she knew HIV/AIDS was a problem in the African American community, but until Callahan's sermon she had no idea it was such a serious problem in Philadelphia.
Whitehead's take on the sermon: "It was so important to let everybody know we need to be taking care of each other. That's where our strength is. Just knowing that we can prevent it by knowing our status, it was empowering."
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