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AN HIV MISSION
BAPTIST PREACHER USES SUNDAY SERVICES TO EDUCATE HIS CONGREGATION ABOUT THE SCOURGE
OF THE AIDS-CAUSING VIRUS IN AN INNOVATIVE WAY: BY IMMEDIATELY PROVIDING TESTS FOR IT

The Rev. Darius G. Pridgen stood before his congregation during Sunday worship and invited his mostly African-American assembly to be tested for HIV after the service.

At the 9 a.m. service in True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street, Pridgen was pricked with a small needle for an HIV blood test while more than 700 congregation members watched.

After the two morning services, his example prompted about 105 church members to go to 14 classrooms in Stepping Stones Academy Charter School, which is attached to the church, to be tested for the virus that causes AIDS.

This mass HIV testing in a church setting is believed to be the first in the nation and is considered by many as a breakthrough for the church.

During the service, Pridgen called on teenagers to stand in front of the church and then spoke frankly to about 50 of them about the dangers of sex and a promiscuous lifestyle.

He spoke to the females first.

"We know that you are looking for love, but I don't want you to confuse love with sex," Pridgen preached.

Thunderous applause broke out among the congregation, with a few members chanting "Amen" and "Hallelujah."

"Sex has nothing to do with love," he continued. "Something that you're going to hear from the men is, 'If you love me, you'll have sex with me.' They don't give a dog-gone about you. They care about themselves. God gave you something of your own -- your body. So respect your body. . . . Don't let anyone treat you anything other than the queen that you are."

He then addressed the males.

"These women standing next to you are not toys or playthings or objects to be abused," he said. "Once you catch (AIDS), you don't just get rid of it. Do not let yourselves die for a few minutes of pleasure."

He later brought home the reality of AIDS to the adults sitting in the pews by asking, "How many of us should have had AIDS by now? How many of us should have been dead from AIDS by now?"

The service continued with lively hymns, praises and Scripture readings, followed by the testing.

The day, called "Breakthrough Sunday" involved 40 HIV/AIDS educators and service providers from nine agencies and organizations -- including the state and county health departments, AIDS Community Services, Project Reach, Planned Parenthood and Erie County Medical Center.

The volunteers also handed out pamphlets about sex and presented information that promoted the church's message of abstinence.

"We see this as the tearing down of the traditional church barriers that excludes dialogue about sex, HIV and AIDS," said Ken Smith, a program coordinator at GROUP Ministries, the outreach ministry on Jefferson Avenue that organized the event.

"We applaud the efforts of Rev. Pridgen to open his doors to such a controversial subject. We hope African-American churches will take their rightful place in the fight against AIDS and start leading support groups and advocacy efforts."

Eight other Buffalo churches are planning to launch similar HIV testing days, and the ministry at True Bethel is hoping to make it a biannual event, Smith said.

Downtown Buffalo resident Michael Threat, 43, decided to undergo the test after his cousin died of AIDS last month. Before the cousin died, he also infected his wife and mistress with HIV.

"I wanted a peace of mind," said Threat, who is married with three children. "It'll put my mind at ease to know that the things I did when I was younger didn't affect me. What I did 20 years ago could creep up to haunt me. AIDS is a long-term killer, and it's easy to go home and pass on a death sentence to your loved ones without knowing it."

All the tests were performed anonymously, and participants could choose between oral swabs and blood tests. Testers also questioned the participants about high-risk factors such as unsafe sex practices and intravenous drug use.

The results of the tests will be revealed in two weeks during private interviews with the participants at clinics, hospitals and health facilities across the city.

The statistics among African-Americans and other people of color in Buffalo are alarming. More than 5,000 area residents are HIV-positive, and almost 3,000 of them are people of color, according to the AIDS Network of Western New York.

Black women made up 62 percent of the 249 women diagnosed with AIDS last year in Buffalo, while African-American men represented 50 percent of the 971 men in Buffalo similarly diagnosed, most of them being homosexual and drug users, said officials at the Erie County Health Department.

Despite the stigma of AIDS being associated with homosexuality, promiscuity and drug use, church members agreed that churches need to take a proactive role against the disease that is plaguing the black community.

Smith said church-sponsored events and education are important because the church has been a cornerstone of the African-American community ever since the early days of slavery, when the church offered illegal education to slaves.

"This disease has disproportionately affected people of color," Smith said. "Historically, the church has been a mecca for change. We're hoping to maintain the pivotal role of the church and to change some of the thinking and ways in the African-American community."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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