Sharpton addresses HIV/AIDS event in BR via live video feed

The fight against the AIDS epidemic needs to be waged on a grassroots level in communities and churches, the Rev. Al Sharpton urged a crowd of about 100 people who had gathered at Greater King David Baptist Church on Friday night.

Sharpton, appearing on several large screens via video conference, was unable to attend the “AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue” town hall discussion in person because of weather-related travel delays, but his message resonated — drawing several rounds of applause and cheers.

“We all must be involved — the faith community, the civil rights community,” Sharpton said. “It can’t be avoided; it can’t be delayed.”

The HIV virus and the AIDS epidemic have hit Baton Rouge especially hard. The city consistently has one of the highest per capita AIDS rates.

Mayor-President Kip Holden, standing in front of a gospel choir at the event, repeatedly evoked religion as a reason why more people should be involved in the fight against AIDS here.

“The Bible has been tossed back and fro on the subject,” he said. “We cannot talk about the Bible and be a class of people of inaction. We are disciples that go out and spread the word.”

Sharpton said it’s especially important for the black community to raise awareness.

“It is a civil rights issue,” he said. “We’re disproportionately affected.”

Nationally, African Americans make up about 44 percent of those who have AIDS but make up only 12 percent of the population at large, according to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which organized Friday’s event as part of its national “AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue” campaign.

At one point, organizers asked everyone in the church auditorium who had been affected by or was close to someone who had AIDS to raise their hands. More than half of the attendees did.

Sharpton said he thinks churches are fertile ground to tackle the issue through offering counseling services, raising awareness and putting pressure on elected officials to do more to address the issue.

“I think every church ought to be a testing site,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd.

He said he also believes that groups should plan more AIDS-awareness events, as was done in the 1980s and early ’90s.

“When we stopped doing the AIDS walks, when we stopped mobilizing people, a lot of people felt the crisis had passed,” Sharpton said. “The data clearly says the problem isn’t solved. We should not be silent.”

Sharpton said he thinks homophobia and fear have stifled AIDS discussions in the black community and in churches.

“There has been a real negligence in dealing with this issue as a priority,” he said. “HIV/AIDS in our community cannot be confronted unless we have all hands on deck.”

A panel featuring Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, Second Baptist Church pastor John Sanders, Baton Rouge Public Health Department STD/HIV coordinator Eugene Collins and infectious disease specialist Dr. Waref Azmeh discussed the hurdles that the effort faces — from funding to fear.

Sanders said it’s easy for churches and other pastors to shy away from the topic.

“I did not believe it was a civil rights issue. I believed it was a moral issue to start with,” he said, adding that, upon further study, he found AIDS to be more complicated than that.

But he said people are afraid to talk about AIDS, to the point of denial. He said some people will tell him that relatives who died of AIDS died because of a “special case of pneumonia” or a “special case of cancer.”

“I think if we told the truth, we as a people would help our children,” he said. “I know the church doesn’t want to touch this issue, but the issue is in your church.”

Azmeh said it’s important to educate people about the medical progress in HIV treatment.

“HIV is not the same disease it was 28 to 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s very important to take care of that issue and explain that it’s not a death sentence.”

Collins said African-American men are less likely than women to get tested, but more men have the virus.

“We need to reach out to men much more than what we’re currently doing if we want to actually affect this epidemic,” he said.

Marcelle, whose district has a statistically high AIDS rate, said she was tested for HIV to help lift the stigma that prevents many from getting tested.

“You have to lead by example,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibilities to make sure that we are tested.”