By: D. Kevin McNeir
Gregory Reed, MFA
New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL gained a reputation decades ago for being on the forefront of providing ministry to those living with HIV/AIDS. Even in the earlier years of the virus, when very little was known about its origin or its impact, the church’s leaders and members were extending their arms and their hearts to those infected by the deadly illness.
And in a recent act of solidarity, New Mount Olive, the Mount Olive Development Corporation [MODC] and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation [AHF] co-sponsored a town hall discussion featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton as the keynote speaker that publicly stated their common belief: AIDS is a civil rights issue.
As part of its national “AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue” advocacy and awareness campaign, which was developed in response to the fact that African American and Latino communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) has teamed locally in South Florida for an ‘AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue Evening of Action’ on Wednesday, April 23rd with local partners including Ft. Lauderdale’s New Mount Olive Baptist Church, the Mount Olive Development Corporation (MODCO) as well as other religious, civic and community groups.
Participants in the discussion included clergy, physicians, health care administrators, elected officials and even those living with HIV/AIDS. An estimated 2,500 people attended the event, including both members of the church and those from the community, which was an AHF-sponsored billboard campaign running concurrently in South Florida, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Columbus, OH, Baton Rouge, Jackson, MS and Los Angeles. The campaign was developed in response to the fact that Black and Latino communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS.
“Through our ‘AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue’ campaign and this evening of action, we hope to open a dialogue with stakeholders in the community, the public health arena and faith-based groups as well as public officials about health disparities and the importance of universal access to HIV prevention and care and treatment,” said Michael Weinstein, president, AHF.
The Rev. Dr. Marcus Davidson, senior pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church, said it is incumbent upon the church to make sure that anyone impacted by the virus has access to care.
“As we pray for the eradication of the pandemic, the Black Church must continue to lead the work to ensure that access to HIV prevention, care and treatment for HIV/AIDS is universal,” he said.
Recent data illustrates the problems facing Blacks and Latinos as it relates to HIV/AIDS. Blacks represent 44% of people with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. but are only 12% of the population. Latinos account for 21% of all new infections nationwide but represent just 16% of the U.S. population. And because of the lack of access to clinics where they can be tested or receive care and with the high level of stigma associated with the virus, communities of color continue to bear the brunt of HIV/AIDS.
“The discussion was quite interesting as a great percentage of those who attended and are not in the healthcare field said they believed the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic is under control – but that’s far from the truth,” said Dr. Deborah Homes, MD, medical director, North Miami Beach Health Care Center.
AIDS is a civil rights issue
“Of the 1.2 million estimated HIV-positive in the U.S., less than 25% are doing well with an undetectable viral load – one fifth don’t even know their status" said Dr. Homes.
“Clearly AIDS is a civil rights issue because it includes ensuring the physical and mental integrity as well as the life and safety of every American citizen. Blacks and youth are the least likely to get proper health care and those living in the Deep South are in dire need of care but have few clinics at their disposal. The Deep South has the highest diagnoses of new cases and the highest fatality rate for AIDS. And it’s Blacks who are the worst effected as one-third of the country’s Black population resides in the Deep South.”
The Church must lead the way
The Rev. Dr. Rosalind Osgood, president/CEO MODC for the past 14 years, said it was well over a decade ago that she dedicated her life to working for those infected and effected by HIV/AIDS after realizing that no one is immune.
“I never knew my biological father but one day well after I had grown up, I got a call from someone who told me that he was HIV-positive and had been rushed to the hospital,” she said. “By the time I reached him, he had died. I was convicted and became a charter member of the Angles of Hope Ministry. Later, I became an ordained minister.
“If the church will talk about the Bible and faith, then we must also be willing to act. Our pastor says we must go out into the streets and connect people to care and services. We have to share our love with those living with HIV/AIDS and give them our support.”
She added that she agreed with Sharpton, who during his comments emphasized the importance of voting for candidates that support legislation that will provide healthcare for all citizens, particularly those who face discrimination like people that are HIV-positive.
“If we continue to be silent about HIV and AIDS, it will continue to kill the people that we love,” Osgood added.
Bobby Henry, Sr., editor and owner of the South Florida-based Westside Gazette, knows full well the impact that HIV/AIDS has on not only those infected but their families.
“My daughter was taking routine blood tests for the military when she learned that she was HIV-positive,” he said. “I initially felt like I had failed her. But I then learned as much as I could about the disease and how to support her. She’s doing great now and is an advocate for others living with the virus. As for the event at Mount Olive, it was like a 1960s civil rights rally and Sharpton brought the message home. We have to vote, we have to get involved and we have to bring today’s youth along with us.”
D. Kevin McNeir, senior editor/radio host for GBMNews.com, is an award-winning journalist who has worked with the Black press in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Atlanta and Chicago. For the past four years he served as the senior editor of The Miami Times. During his tenure, the paper was chosen twice as the nation’s top Black newspaper by the NNPA. He recently joined the staff of The Washington Informer as a freelance beat reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org