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HIV Activism and The Black Church Have a Rising Leader

National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS

The first female pastor of The New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church of Harlem reflects on prayer week, activism and why she's still fighting HIV stigma.

I have been an advocate in this effort to end AIDS in our lifetime for over 25 years — first, as a pastoral counselor, then as a member of the Board of Directors of what was the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force (now Bridging Access To Care). 

I was introduced to the epidemic by a young man named Kenneth, who has since died of AIDS complications. I was the pastor of an intimate congregation in Brooklyn at the time. And it was during the course our friendship that he introduced me to a very important issue: houses of worship were in denial (and totally unaccepting) of people living with HIV.

I was reminded of this after counseling a young woman belonging to one of the leading churches in Brooklyn. She was the first I counseled who happened to be HIV-positive. She was also the daughter of the chair of the diaconate ministry, and had been raised according to biblical principles, which is probably why she married a young man she thought was like-minded enough.

We never determined how her husband acquired the virus. She was my priority. After only learning of his diagnoses while he lay dying, she confided in her parents and pastor, who abruptly turned on her.

They had a special chair made for her. She was only allowed to use paper plates, and plastic utensils, and worse, no one ever came close enough to hug or kiss her. As I listened to her story, she was full of all the typical "why" questions. Of course I answered as many as I could, but it broke my heart that the people she loved and trusted turned on her like vipers.

When she died, they threw her away in a "direct cremation" and acted as though she never existed.

I also believe that she had a son, though I could never know the truth because they turned on me as well.

I first came to Harlem 15 years ago. One of my first close friends in New York City was Reverend Ella, who was involved in the Upper Room AIDS Ministry that evolved into Harlem United. I also started the Survivors Fountain of Hope Wellness Initiative, Inc in conjunction with Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement. With HCCI & The Balm in Gilead (which was also connected to HCCI), we began a journey of workshops, education, testing, & condom distribution.

Rev. Ella & I would also do "companion" pastoral intervention. A hospital and/or nursing home would call us when someone was about to die of AIDS complications. We would go, sit by their bedside, hold their hand, and pray with them until they "crossed the river". I did this in Brooklyn and at Rose M. Singer/Rivers Island Facility.  

In addition to being a pastor, I am also a funeral director and as such I partnered with Rev. Ella & Harlem United to never let anyone get thrown away. Whatever Harlem United could contribute, I would cover the balance. Sometimes I covered it all just so no one would be thrown away!

I never forgot my girls or my experiences in Brooklyn.

Our church is located on the Eastside of Harlem (128th Street and Park Avenue). There is so much homelessness, hunger, drugs, alcoholism, and men in halfway houses wandering aimlessly; mentally ill people are brought over and released on Lexington and 125th Street, and a lot of them have HIV and/or hepatitis C.

The SFOH Wellness Initiative continues — in conjunction with our church — to do testing, workshops, condom distribution, food distribution (we serve hot meals twice a month).

We are a part of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA) Initiative, however, rarely do the funds cover everything we do and oftentimes the extra money comes out of my pocket, my funeral home, and/or the Church. The Lord has blessed us with three social workers who have different discipline expertise (drugs, education, and mental illness in those with HIV). They contribute their gifts/skills in the service of the Lord.

Our workshops cover as much as we can handle. We just had an empowerment conference and did health education and testing. On March 18, we will address the first in a three-part series on mental illness, while teaching folks to practice self care. This one is for women.

I can thoroughly understand why some ladies living with HIV were skeptical about coming into a church and seeing it as a safe space, as this first event wasn't well attended. However, those who did come were not only surprised by the reception they received, but also at all of the information we gathered concerning health venues, legal matters and other entitlements.

We are committed to continue the work. Why? Because it is important.

Reverend Patricia A. Morris lives, works, and serves the Harlem community — professionally and spiritually. She currently serves as the fifth pastor of The New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church of Harlem, and is the first woman to hold the title.

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Patricia A. Morris