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Urgency given to HIV/AIDS impact

African-Americans in Western New York represented 46 percent of newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases in 2007, despite making up only 5.6 percent of the general population, according to statistics from the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.

Adolescents and young adults -- ages 12 to 24 -- represent 5 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in Western New York.

And AIDS is still the No. 1 killer of African-American women ages 25 to 44.

The statistics were presented as part of the first Western New York Interfaith Faith Leaders' Summit on HIV/AIDS. The focus of Monday's event was to address an audience of faith leaders, lay ministry workers, community activists and individuals infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. There was a special interest in the region's African-American and Hispanic communities.

"We are convinced this fight against HIV/AIDS cannot be won without the active involvement of the church," said the Rev. William Gillison, chairman of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of Buffalo, an affiliate of the national commission.

Gillison is the pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church on East Delavan Avenue, where about 75 people attended the conference.

"The numbers tell an unfortunate truth: HIV/AIDS is devastating our communities of color, and it is incumbent upon those of us who impact the lives of minorities to sound the alarm," the pastor said.

The goal of the summit was to help religious leaders and laypeople address HIV/AIDS from the pulpit, establish HIV/AIDS ministries within existing health ministries and motivate clergy to advocate efforts to fight the epidemic in Buffalo's minority communities.

The event brought together religious leaders and lay ministry workers from several denominations, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

"It was excellent, educational, important. It's awareness," said Christine Lewis, a chaplain with Fellowship Ministry.

"We perish from a lack of knowledge, but once we learn, we can teach someone else. We have to take this information out into our neighborhoods and spread the word and direct people to who they can talk to."

Workshops included "HIV/AIDS 101," how religious leaders can help others overcome the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease, and theological grounds for the compassionate care of HIV-infected people. A panel discussion with religious leaders also was featured.

"Our community is dying," said Ava White of Group Ministries. "We need funding. We need advocacy. We need outreach. We need unity."

Other clergy attending included the Rev. James A. Lewis III, pastor of Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church; the Rev. Arthur Boyd of Group Ministries; and Matthew Brown, pastor of Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ.

"HIV/AIDS starts out as a thief," Brown said. "Thieves take things from you, and you don't know it's gone until you go look for it."


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