On a Saturday morning in February, a few faithful gathered in a tidy country church in Dalzell, a small town northeast of Sumter.
Among the breakfast fare of bacon and biscuits sat straw baskets brimming with condoms, wrapped in green and white tissue and labeled with the words “My Secret Weapon.”
Each condom package displayed a Bible verse: “The Lord protects the simple hearted” (Psalm 116:6), “Love ... always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
With coaching from the legislatively sponsored Project F.A.I.T.H., the members of Joshua Baptist Church were joining 39 other congregations in the battle against HIV-AIDS among blacks in South Carolina.
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Black churches largely stood back even as their own members in increasing numbers bore the brunt of the disease over the years. Many saw HIV/AIDS as a disease of sin or God’s punishment for homosexuality.
Now, many of those churches see HIV prevention as part of their mission: in large part because church leaders are learning that they can play a key role in curbing the spread this disease among blacks.
Edna Graham, who leads Joshua Baptist’s HIV ministry, says the church is the perfect place to talk about HIV/AIDS.
“If we don’t talk about it in church, where else are we going to do it?”
Dalzell sits in Sumter County, which ranks fourth in the state in the rate of people with HIV/AIDS, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Training pastors and other church leaders is a key part of the work of Project F.A.I.T.H. (Fostering AIDS Initiatives That Heal), a church-based program first financed by the Legislature in 2006.
“The black minister carries a tremendous amount of influence,” said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, a Baptist minister who championed legislative approval of the project.
“Too often, black ministers preach negative, judgmental, damning kinds of sermons about individuals who have HIV/AIDS.” That, Neal said, “is not the appropriate way to do this.”
Church involvement in HIV prevention and AIDS care is not new to South Carolina.
Early on, some churches with largely white congregations established HIV/AIDS ministries. The Episcopal Church offered a conference on the Church and AIDS in the late 1980s.
Black churches were less responsive to the epidemic. Project F.A.I.T.H. grew out of a decade-long effort by Bambi Gaddist, executive director of the S.C. HIV/AIDS Council.In 2006, Neal persuaded legislators to allocate $1 million for Project F.A.I.T.H., the state-funded first faith-based HIV-prevention program.
“It was done very quietly and without a lot of fanfare,” he said. “That made some people comfortable to vote for it.”
The number of churches involved has expanded this year to 40 from 24 in 2006.
During the Project F.A.I.T.H. visit to Dalzell, some church members quietly made their way to a side room to be tested for HIV.
M.C. Dyson, 88, a deacon at Joshua Baptist, called his church’s involvement in HIV/AIDS prevention and care “one of the most beautiful things.”
“I’m 100 percent for it,” he said. “It’s something that should have happened years ago.”