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Prominent local black and Hispanic women lead the effort for HIV testing by example

The Bible says Jesus Christ led by example when he healed lepers, embraced the poor, ministered to prostitutes and fought against the injustices of oppression.

Eight women of color -- all prominent Western New Yorkers -- apparently took that message to heart when they decided to get tested for HIV during a service at a Buffalo church in a bid to encourage the community to follow their lead.

Sunday, these women stood at the lectern of True Bethel Baptist Church, 907 E. Ferry St., a mostly black congregation on the city's East Side.

More than 700 people in the audience watched as the women were given an oral swab for their HIV tests.

"This is a real critical issue for the black and Latino community," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, D-Buffalo, who was among those tested.

"It's one thing to say to protect yourself and abstain from sex, but it's so important to lead with actions, as opposed to just talking," she said during an interview following the church service.

According to the state Health Department, 31.8 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS in the eight counties of Western New York in 2005 were women.

In these same counties, blacks and Hispanics accounted for 57.4 percent of all documented HIV and AIDS cases.

In Buffalo, blacks account for 36.6 percent of the city's population, but 53.9 percent of the people with AIDS.

During an interview, the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen explained that women of color who are under age 30 are the highest percentage of new HIV and AIDS cases.

That was why, he said, he spent much of his sermon talking to the young ladies in the audience.

"My sermon dealt with choices," said Pridgen. "These girls are faced with the pressures of sex, and we want to ensure that they make the right choices. It doesn't matter how good he looks or how smooth talking he is, he could be infected with HIV or AIDS."

Sunday's HIV testing was part of "Breakthrough Sundays" -- a day where religious leaders across the city bring awareness to their congregations about the importance of being tested for the virus that causes AIDS.

The first Breakthrough Sunday happened Nov. 24, 2002, in True Bethel Baptist Church, where Pridgen was tested for HIV at the pulpit during the morning service.

After the two morning services, his example prompted about 105 church members to be tested for HIV in classrooms in Stepping Stones Academy Charter School, which is attached to the church.

The mass HIV testing in a church setting is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. It made headlines around the world.

"It's all about breaking down the stigma and barriers about being tested," said Kenneth Smith, vice president of substance abuse services at GROUP Ministries, an outreach ministry which sponsors Breakthrough Sunday. "When these pillars of the community stand up and do something like this, people will listen."

Sunday's event prompted dozens of church members to be tested anonymously following the service.

Most of the women tested in front of the church were elected officials -- Crystal Peoples, University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell, State Supreme Court Justice Rose Sconiers, Buffalo City Judge E. Jeannette Ogden, Buffalo City Judge Betty Calvo-Torres and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo.

The remaining two women are community leaders -- LaVonne Ansari, executive director of the Community Health Center of Buffalo, and Rhonda A. Ricks, CEO of Inclusion Development Associates, a local monitoring firm.

Seven of them are black; one is Hispanic.

Calvo-Torres become the first Hispanic woman to serve on the city bench when she was sworn in last week Thursday. "This doesn't affect one race, or one culture, or one gender," said Calvo-Torres. "It was a powerful event and it brought tears to my eyes."

The idea behind Sunday's event changed slightly during the planning stages.

When Pridgen initially asked Peoples to stand in front of the church to support church members as they were being tested, but Peoples took it one step further. She volunteered to be tested herself.

She then invited seven other women in the community to take the tests alongside her.

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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