Every year, Pastor John R. Faison, Sr. and his wife Minister Alethia J. Faison are publicly tested for HIV in front of their congregation at Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church, in the hopes of taking the stigma out of testing and encouraging their members to get screened. They also offer confidential HIV testing at their church, a setting which Pastor Faison describes as being a far more comfortable and convenient environment for his congregants than going to a sterile office or waiting lobby at a hospital, which can be a barrier for many. “You can’t encourage people to get tested for HIV, and not get tested yourself. People are watching you more than they are listening to you,” says Pastor Faison, who also serves as an HIV/AIDS National Ambassador with the NAACP.
The impetus for getting involved as an HIV/AIDS Ambassador started informally and organically for Pastor Faison. He remembers putting together a sermon series titled, “Therapy in the Sanctuary,” with the goal of encouraging public conversations in his church on topics such as suicide, depression and HIV/AIDS to remove the fear associated with them. In his sermon preparation, he stumbled across The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative, an initiative started by the NAACP and Gilead Sciences to educate and empower faith leaders and their congregations to address HIV as a public health and social justice issue and advocate for those affected.
On a Sunday he will never forget, he began his sermon with an anonymous survey for his congregation asking if they knew anyone personally who was HIV-positive or who had died from AIDS; results from the largest service were 93% Yes and 7% No. For Pastor Faison, “the immediacy and impact of the results gave gravity to the subject matter and moment. HIV was no longer a discussion about ‘them’ outside of the sanctuary; it was about ‘us’ sitting in this sanctuary.” While conversations could have easily ended in despondency given the results, Pastor Faison found encouragement from an overwhelming positive response from his congregation to the poll and his sermon on HIV/AIDS. Some members who themselves were HIV positive shared that “for the first time they felt visible and seen.”
HIV/AIDS is deeply personal for Pastor Faison as well, as he fondly remembers that a beloved cousin of his who was one of his childhood heroes growing up, tested positive for HIV and later passed away from AIDS.
“She tested positive and the sad part about this was that my family had adverse reactions. She got sick, (and when) they found out she had AIDS….she died alone in the hospital. Because of the stigma around it, nobody was around, and that broke my heart.”
This was yet another reason behind his decision to become an HIV/AIDS ambassador, as he reflected that his story of loss and stigma couldn’t be the only one. From conversations with his congregation, he realized many similarities between his story and theirs. “Many folks in my congregation [with loved ones] who passed away from AIDS, their families said that they had pneumonia, that they died of cancer, natural causes or all of these other monikers just to avoid saying HIV or AIDS. It was unearthing, a bit jarring, but [necessary to] try to pull the sheet off an elephant that we have pushed in the corner and ignored for so long…that was the start…and the NAACP reached out to collaborate with me as a result.”
Rev. Dr. John Faison, Sr.
In our community—the Black church—we don’t get the privilege of being silent about these things, we don’t get the privilege of not addressing them or glossing over them. The Black church is the central voice in many areas of the Black community.
In 2018 alone, African Americans accounted for 42% of all new HIV diagnoses in the US even though African Americans make up about 13% of the US population. African Americans are also “nearly eight times more likely to contract HIV than Whites—and more than twice as likely to be infected as Latinos/Latinas.” According to the CDC, combatting HIV comes with many prevention challenges in the African American community, a few of which include fears of racism and discrimination due to mistrust in the health care system making prevention services, treatment and care less likely, social and economic issues that limit access to quality care and homophobia. Thus, HIV/AIDS is both a public health and social justice issue in the African American community, and Pastor Faison and other HIV/AIDS Ambassador faith leaders are doing their part to combat this epidemic in their communities.
“In our community—the Black church—we don’t get the privilege of being silent about these things, we don’t get the privilege of not addressing them or glossing over them. The Black church is the central voice in many areas of the Black community…so it is a heavy responsibility, one that we take on with fear and trembling, but one that demands responsible engagement and decision making,” says Pastor Faison.
For Pastor Faison there’s also a spiritual component as well. Often before giving a sermon he would fast and pray with his leadership team, praying, “God…allow the atmosphere to be saturated with (your) spirit, so that in our attempt to push the envelope we don’t wound people at the same time. (We pray) that the spirit begins to massage the hearts and minds of people, so that the ground is built for the seed of the word…this is a matter of heart and mind and so it is deeply spiritual.”
From Epidemics to Pandemics
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has revealed similar health inequities as African Americans and other people of color have been disproportionately affected by infection and mortality. Whether fighting the AIDS epidemic or the COVID-19 pandemic, Pastor Faison prioritizes the health and safety of his predominantly African American congregation. For his congregation this has meant holding church services remote and online indefinitely until it is safe to meet in person.
“African Americans have enough against them. We are not out here playing Russian roulette [with our health], as you would call it. I’ve got folks in my congregation who are first responders, nurses, doctors, epidemiologists, radiologists, janitors, cafeteria workers and they work at local universities and hospitals where they see [the effects of the pandemic] face to face and they endanger themselves every day, and they’re heroes. How do I honor them and completely disregard the steps that are necessary just for the sake of public communal worship?…It’s not honoring of the sacrifice they make every day.
I also have a large portion of elderly members (65 and older) that are already at high risk, add those who have diabetes, then add those who are cancer survivors or fighting cancer, and those who have pre-existing conditions already from asthma to emphysema and COPD. Now, as a pastor I think that’s cruel and criminal for me to leverage their desire for social connection against what’s going to be best for their health. It’s not the preferred method, but it’s the safest…I tell my congregation all the time, “I miss y’all so much, but I love you more than I miss you,” says Pastor Faison.
Pastor Faison has always valued the safety of his congregation and providing a safe environment for them, whether that is having church security, protocols for an active shooter or background checks for staff. However, he shared that prior to the pandemic, he “had not considered providing a safe environment this comprehensively…[but sees and understands it more] biologically now.”
Although the pandemic has disrupted and limited Pastor Faison’s in-person interaction with his congregation, his church is very much virtually connected, thriving and actively serving their local community. During the past year alone, his church has distributed food to those in need through their food pantry, raised $20,000 to provide twenty $1,000 grants to small businesses in the local community, and partnered with Meharry Medical College to offer free mobile COVID-19 testing.
While many often ask pastors how they can use their trust equity to foster trust towards science within their congregation, Pastor Faison believes that this is the wrong question to ask. “The question should be, “How do we make the practices of science trustworthy?” Black mistrust didn’t just show up because it decided to show up, there are some significant events that have occurred that history tells us about that led to the hesitancy and the distrust.” He finds it reassuring however, that many people of color have been involved every step of the way in the recent COVID vaccine process. “With the people I’ve talked to, (sharing this) has helped to assuage some of those hesitancies and concerns.”
For Pastor Faison, taking the HIV test publicly has removed a lot of angst and anxiety out of the process for his congregation and encouraged many of them to get tested. He hopes to do the same with the COVID-19 vaccine, by taking it publicly as well, once again setting the stage for others to follow.
This article is part of a special series published by BioLogos for Black History Month, highlighting underrepresented voices on faith and science. This work was supported and made possible by a Diversity grant from the National Association of Science Writers (NASW).
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