This month, the International AIDS Conference is being held in Washington for the first time in 22 years. The event has brought attention to the advances that have been made as well as the challenges that still remain in the fight to control the disease.
Reverend Tony Lee is the founding pastor of the Community of Hope Church in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Community of Hope’s congregants are predominately black, and as has been discussed previously on The Takeaway, nearly half of all Americans living with HIV are African-American. In order to combat these statistics, and the stigma surrounding AIDS, Rev. Lee does something truly unusual. Four times a year, on the pulpit, he has himself tested for HIV in front of his entire congregation.
"We average about a 150 [who are] tested each time," Lee says.
Lee's church holds up abstinence as the standard for sexual activity, but the pastor acknowledges that not everyone will live up to that standard. Safety, then, becomes the main priority. "We have to deal with the fact that within our congregation and region, HIV and AIDS numbers are so high that we can't act like no one there is infected or affected," Lee says. His church also distributes condoms. "I preach against gossip — that doesn't mean that no one in my church gossips," he says.
According to Lee, the pastor's unorthodox strategy of testing during services has been encouraged and applauded by the community. He and his congregation have worked to raise AIDS awareness beyond the walls of the church through outreach services in clubs, hair salons, and barbershops.
"I know that in whatever community, especially in a faith community, there's a stigma [about AIDS testing]," Lee says. "If you're at church, for you to go get tested signifies that you might be doing something that's against what you say that you believe." That's why the pastor encourages abstinent members of his congregation to get tested in order to fight that stigma.
"God loves you," Lee says. "Love yourself enough to protect yourself, love yourself enough to take care of yourself. Abstinence is the standard, the best way, but if you're not [practicing abstinence], take care of yourself, be safe, and don't be afraid of testing."