African-Americans accounted for 69 percent of all new HIV infections in Mecklenburg County during the first half of 2005. So the Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP) is taking the fight to church: Black churches, a cornerstone of the black community, have initiated annual prayer weeks to foster AIDS awareness in their communities. Although tremendously important, these efforts have fallen short in reducing the number of HIV cases. The community at large, especially the youth, is not heeding the message.
Gospel music has long been a way of helping the oppressed overcome their burdens. As the background music of the Civil Rights Movement, gospel reminded activists of God's promises, giving them the strength to persevere through adversity. As they sang the movement's anthem, "We Shall Overcome," everyday people put aside their fear and marched toward something brighter and bigger than themselves.
Today, the most vital of urban missions is the attempt to educate youth about the dire realities of AIDS beyond Magic Johnson's seeming triumph over the disease and the ramifications of the double-whammy effects of AIDS and poverty.
To foster more African-American participation in the fight to prevent infection, MAP is throwing an AIDS Awareness Gospel Explosion Feb. 4 to spread the word by combining the message with gospel music. Funded in part by the United Way Central Carolinas, MAP provides comprehensive case management, support services, prevention education and limited financial assistance to those living with HIV/AIDS in the Charlotte area.
Negative associations to AIDS stem from its transmission via drug use and homosexuality, says Joe Gentry, community resource manager for MAP, and that has hindered efforts to educate the community on disease prevention. In a March 2003 Associated Press article, Don Sneed, executive director of Renaissance III, a contemporary of MAP in Dallas, cited the stringent position of the church as an obstacle. "On any given Sunday, in any given black church, you can hear that old spiel, 'God didn't create Adam and Steve, he created Adam and Eve,'" said Sneed, who is black. "This is drilled into young black boys from the minute they hit the church."
But the emergence of the "Down Low" trend among African-American men points to the reality that some black men are engaging in clandestine homosexual activity, and the church's sermonizing can contribute to ambivalence and fear among parishioners practicing risky behavior. Meanwhile, women and children under the age of 3 are now the biggest group of victims of this voiceless epidemic.
Maybe this "voice" can be called to respond by the reassuring comfort found in gospel music. Gimme the Mike Charlotte 2004 winner Catrina Pegues will lend her voice as feature soloist to the Gospel Explosion. Joining her are the Pride Gospel Mass Choir, Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church Choir, Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte Choir, Voices of Hope Recovery Choir and Weeping Willow AME Zion Church Choir.
In keeping with its mission, St. Paul Baptist Church will host Gospel Explosion, a fundraiser for MAP. "It is our mandate to reach for the burdened, bruised and bound; hurt, hopeless and homeless; sick, sinful and sorrowful," states St. Paul's pastor, Gregory K. Moss. Dealing with issues that are relevant today is foremost in St. Paul's campaign to minister to the community.
Organizers also hope Gospel Explosion will increase exposure for National Black AIDS Awareness Day, an annual event that promotes testing and education, held on Feb. 7.
Like Dr. King calling for the March on Washington in the '60s and Farrakhan spearheading the Million Man March in the '90s, a summons for unity needs to be extended to combat AIDS. As in any campaign, uniting forces against a common enemy is the surest way to victory, a sentiment eloquently expressed in the Negro National Anthem:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won