Testing is the new, widely accepted, key word for faith-based HIV/AIDS support. While the conversations about sexual activity or sexual orientation may leave many pastors squirming from unease, the focus on screening and linkage to care has successfully brought HIV/AIDS prevention to African-American churches, evangelical communities, and even to Catholic outreach centers – all of which just a few years ago were slow to respond to the complex challenges associated with HIV/AIDS. The fourth annual City Uprising HIV outreach day, brought free testing to several local churches, including the ones that I visited in West Baltimore, Unity United Methodist Church and Payne Memorial AME Church. The driving forces behind the day were University of Maryland’s JACQUES Initiative, HopeSprings, and Gallery Church – three names that one hears a lot when one follows the city’s efforts to find comprehensive and innovative strategies to decrease the number of new HIV infections by 25 percent (Healthy Baltimore 2015).
The HIV Outreach Day took place on June 26. It was a sunny summer Tuesday. City Uprising’s success could be measured in multiple ways. One could look at the numbers of the people who came to be tested. Many received counseling after the initial results of their mouth swab. Derek Spencer, the director of the JACQUES Initiative and the charismatic driving force behind various faith-based outreach efforts, shared at the event that altogether about 800 to 1000 people were expected to show up at one of the five testing sites.
One could also estimate the event’s impact by hundreds of volunteers who had been recruited from local faith communities as well as out of state. They manned the registration stations, distributed fliers and invited people to get tested. The volunteers handed out the Boston Market boxed lunches of turkey and vegetarian sandwiches. The volunteers were a diverse group. Among them were Carson, a recent high-school graduate from Boys’ Latin School; Rachel, a teacher friend of mine from Roland Park; and Anna Fowlkes an animated HIV/AIDS advocate for older women. There were anthropology students from Towson University working on a project, Anthropology by the Wire, and Joyce, a college student who ushered people through the doors of Unity United Church. They were a colorful crew of first-timers and experienced HIV/AIDS advocates, all wearing the event shirt with the motto: “What if we decide everyone matters?”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that about one in five infected people are unaware of their circumstance. It takes courage to be tested for HIV/AIDS, especially if one has many other worries to balance already. I would measure the success of City Uprising through the different types of people who were reached. Whole families including teen children showed up. There were also single mothers with babies in strollers. There were grandmothers with their grandchildren. Some seemed quiet and worried but then there were rambunctious groups as well. The service at the sites was smooth and business like. At Payne Memorial I was quickly beckoned to sit down and start my testing process. When I sat down and explained that I was following the event as a writer, I was quickly ushered out of my seat so that a client could be served. Out of public sight the volunteers offered thoughtful expert guidance, counseling, as well as possible case management. The results of confidential testing were available – and most people left with a smile of relief, but some did learn worrisome news. A tall young man broke in tears after he walked out of the testing and counseling. Fortunately, he had a friend to lean on.
At Unity Church I had a chance to talk shortly with Derek Spencer. He was busy and managing to hop between the various event sites. Mr. Spencer pointed out that Baltimore has been particularly successful in forging creative partnerships between medical establishments, city agencies, and various civic and faith communities, including the JACQUES Initiative’s own faith-based outreach, The Project Shalem. This type of partnering is also seen in JACQUES Initiative’s new program, Preparing the Future, which offers a multi-disciplinary and hands-on curriculum to be used as a HIV training program at various academic settings. Institutions create the framework, but, once again, long-term relationships of trust and belief that everyone matters are the keys to real success. In other words, it is all about encountering real people and believing in their futures. “Everybody is somebody,” Derek Spencer emphasized.
This culture of encounter and respect is clearly the hallmark at the JACQUES Initiative. I had gotten a feel of this already earlier, for last fall I spent a few mornings at the Jacques Initiative hub at the University of Maryland’s famed Institute of Human Virology. My goal was to understand what the JACQUES Initiative’s approach to living well with HIV/AIDS means in practice. A well-managed HIV/AIDS is no longer a death-sentence but rather a chronic illness. A long-term treatment plan, knowledge, encouragement, and frequent contact with care providers create the foundation and possibility for a good life, well lived.
The JACQUES Initiative’s HIV 101 & 102 workshop, primarily aimed at people living with the disease, was simply outstanding for its information and focus on long-term treatment plan. The course’s teacher, Jeff Weaver, was a man of lots of information, encouragement, and some show-business. It was probably good that he also made us laugh and got us hooked up with trying to estimate the right answers, for some of the participants may have otherwise spent the morning in tears. Many of the participants had taken the course several times and also come weekly to one of the JACQUES Initiative’s support groups. Some of them even return daily for their medicine, an option that seemed to be well-appreciated by those who worried that they might forget the tablets or get discouraged on their own. What struck me the most, however, was the culture of personal welcome and hospitality that the participants embraced full-heartedly. Just as they had been warmly welcomed – perhaps first time in a long-time – so too they seemed excited that it was I, a stranger and a foreigner, who had joined them for a bit of their journey.