When activists worldwide marked three decades since the emergence of a mysterious immune disease, Kansas City, Kan., participants posted a timeline of key events in the fight against the AIDS pandemic in a building foyer in their community.
Yet this was no ordinary foyer; it was the main entrance to Mt. Carmel Church of God in Christ at 2025 N. 12th St. Not only that, but the display in the African American church went up right around Christmastime to coincide with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.
“That was the first thing that you saw when you came through the front door of the church – was this huge bulletin board. So that was paramount, because it was not just Mt. Carmel folks who were seeing this,” says church member LaTrischa Miles, who helped coordinate the 2011 display.
Visiting churches were coming through at the time, mixing with Mt. Carmel congregants.
It was all part of a project known as Taking it to the Pews (TIPS), a project spearheaded by Jannette Berkley-Patton, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. (KCUR is licensed by UMKC.) One of her main partners is the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of Calvary Temple Baptist Church at 29th and Holmes streets in Kansas City, Mo.
Years in the making, the project aims to leverage the credibility of the church in the black community to attack a disease that disproportionately affects African Americans. A key component in helping to eliminate the stigma is making HIV testing available to the congregation during services – oftentimes with the pastor and his wife leading by example from the pulpit.
And now, Berkely-Patton and her colleagues are poised to take what could be the final step in what may become a tool for black churches across the country to address AIDS – as well as exploring whether the TIPS model can help reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases within the black community.
With a new five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, project organizers are putting together a full clinical trial expected to include up to 14 churches around the metropolitan area. Researchers aim to engage about 1,500 adult African Americans.
“We will be knocking on a bunch of doors trying to get new churches involved,” Berkely-Patton says.
According to the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, AIDS affects blacks more than any other racial/ethnic group. Citing data from 2010, the center says that:
- African Americans accounted for an estimated 44 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (aged 13 years or older), despite representing only 12 percent of the U.S. population
- African-American women accounted for nearly a third (29 percent) of the estimated new HIV infections among all adult and adolescent African Americans. The estimated rate of new HIV infections for African-American women (38.1/100,000 population) was 20 times that of white women and almost 5 times that of Hispanic/Latino women.
- The greater number of people living with HIV in African-American communities and the tendency of African Americans to have sex with partners of the same race/ethnicity means that they face a greater risk of HIV infection with each new sexual encounter.
Early in the AIDS pandemic, Williams recognized that black clergy were inadvertently contributing to the fear and stigma surrounding the disease by demonizing it from the pulpit. A defining moment for Williams came, he says, when a family could not find anyone to conduct the funeral of their gay son who had died from AIDS.
“Most of our colleagues, if you were to ask them if they wanted to relieve human suffering, hands down, they would, ‘Yes, we believe the church should be equipped to relieve human suffering,’” Williams says. “Until you start talking about HIV. Then the waters start getting a little fuzzier.”
By the mid-1990s, though, Williams says, attitudes among black clergy began to soften as they witnessed the effects of the disease on sufferers and their families within their congregations.
Then, in 2005, Berkley-Patton arrived at UMKC as an adjunct faculty member.
A product of Kansas City’s urban core who grew up attending Second Baptist Church at 39th Street and Monroe Avenue, Berkley-Patton had left a job in the aerospace industry to earn a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Kansas.
Upon her return to the city, Berkley-Patton became active with the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS in Kansas City.
Her involvement came as Williams and others involved with a sister organization of his church, Calvary Community Outreach Network, were growing frustrated that clergy had not progressed on AIDS education initiatives suggested through the Black Church Week of Prayer. The clergy had not done much, he says, mainly because they didn't know where to start or how to convey the information.
That formed the seeds of TIPS, which launched in 2006 with some local grants. It began with a series of focus groups and planning sessions involving about a dozen churches in the metropolitan area.
Patton then got an initial National Institutes of Health grant to conduct a four-church pilot, along with the outreach network, in 2011-2012. Mt. Carmel was one of the churches in the pilot, which showed promise in getting people tested.
Mt. Carmel experience
Mt. Carmel performed 179 tests during the pilot, Miles says. That’s a significant amount, given that community outreach events typically log no more than 10 or 15 tests.
Church leaders committed to holding at least two events per month, Miles says – whether youth activities, responsive readings, rallies or testimonials.
Medical staff only tested individuals between the ages of 18 and 64, but conversations were not limited to those age groups, says Stephanie Kimbrough, another church member involved with the pilot.
Kimbrough says it certainly opened up lines of communication between her and her daughter, who was 12-years-old at the time. The pilot also engaged older congregants as well, she says.
“Imagine talking to an 80-year-old woman about anal sex,” Kimbrough says. “That’s not always easy. Sometimes they didn’t understand. You had to explain what this was.”
Berkley-Patton is hoping TIPS strategies work for other conditions afflicting the black community, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
She has termed that initiative Faith Influencing Transformation (FIT), an eight-month project scheduled to begin this fall with an $850,000 grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Berkley-Patton is working with the UMKC School of Nursing & Health Studies to perhaps have FIT provide hands-on experience to undergraduate health sciences students as preparation for public health careers.
At Mt. Carmel, Miles says, addressing other health issues might seem like a piece of cake after the discussion within the congregation about AIDS.
“If we could organize around an issue as complex as this, with the stigma and the lack of education,” she says, “then I think we can tackle anything.”
Mike Sherry is a health reporter for the Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT.