During Black History Month we acknowledge the contributions of iconic African-American heroes and sheroes while casting a special light on those lesser known. We celebrate our achievements, music, food and culture. We make it clear that we have to honor who we are all year long, not just in February. Though the month was selected by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, many complain about it being the shortest. We hear speeches in lecture halls and classrooms about the progress that has been made by the Black race and what is yet to be realized. We dust off the Black National Anthem, singing only the first two verses so that no one is embarrassed for not knowing the whole anthem. During Black History Month, Black life is celebrated in every sphere from social media to the church.
In many Black churches special litanies, calls to worship and songs celebrating our history and heritage become a part of the liturgy for Sunday morning services. One of the scriptures that I am used to hearing at some point during the month is taken from the 1st epistle of Peter, a letter that was written largely to Gentile Christians who resided along the borders of the Black Sea on the northwest quadrant of Asia Minor. I am sure many of you are familiar with this passage of scripture as well, “ But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you might declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1st Peter 2:9 NIV).
If I were writing a sermon, I would say the text teaches us five things. The first being, we are chosen; second, we are a royal priesthood; third, we are a holy nation; fourth, we are a people belonging to God; and lastly, we are supposed to declare God’s praises. However, this is a blog and with today being the tenth anniversary of Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I’d like to reflect on the text in the context of how we as African-American Christians have dealt historically with HIV/AIDS and how we, who are “chosen, the royal priesthood, a holy nation,” can move progressively forward.
There have been many African-American people working as HIV activists and educators because of their faith since the disease began to disproportionately impact our community. My personal and professional heroes include Reverend Doris Greene, Geneva Bell, Reverend Edwin Sanders, Trina Scott, Sylvia Jo Oglesby, Reverend Gina Sourelis, Otis“Buddy” Sutson, Reverend Rainey Cheeks, the late minister Anthony Hollins and many more. These persons were and continue to be those whom I believe the scripture is speaking about when it states, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” I have observed firsthand their embodiment of the “royal priesthood” which requires us to serve those living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS.
I appreciate this passage of scripture because it is a reminder that we are chosen by God, that we are God’s people. We are followers of Christ the King. It assures me that we are the King’s kids. As children of God and followers of Christ, we are royalty. But do we act like royalty when it comes to sexual behavior and activity? Do we act like royalty when it comes to doing something about the high and escalating rates of HIV infection among African-Americans? Do we have an “I’m royalty” mindset when it comes to our temple? Historically speaking, I would say not. Over 30 years ago, when information about the disease reached public consciousness, HIV was primarily thought to only impact white, gay males. Today, an estimated 1.1 million people are living with HIV infection, of which almost half (46%) are black/African-American (CDC). Some of which are African- American Christians!
It’s one thing to know externally that we are royalty. It is quite another to believe it internally and live it externally. An internal understanding that, as children of God, royal blood runs through our veins means that something should be going on inside that defines how we live, move and how our being on the outside. If we are to move progressively forward in the face of HIV we must adopt a royal mindset that demonstrates we are King’s kids in our behaviors. To put it plainly, we have to be sexually responsible. We must stop engaging in self-destructive sexual behaviors inside and outside the context of marriage. We must stop playing sexual roulette, putting ourselves and unsuspecting partners at risk.
We must both begin to talk about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and “be about it,” developing sexually healthy lifestyles. We must get tested and find out our status.
We follow a priestly tradition, a holy nation. We may have come to Christianity as individuals, walking the aisle and accepting Christ as our Savior alone, but in that act we became part of the royal priesthood. That means we are a collective body, a community, a family. As such we are required to have compassion for and act on behalf of the good of the whole. Our president said during the State of the Union, “we create our own destiny.” The destiny we create must include a strategy to end the HIV epidemic, to reduce rates of infection and transmission, and to create better overall health outcomes for those who are living with the disease so that they may live longer and healthier lives.
Just as the scripture reminds us, transformation is possible. The end of the verse assures us that darkness can turn to light, that we can end the AIDS epidemic; that how we start out is not how we have to end up. The state of HIV/AIDS among African-Americans does not have to be the end of the story. But the end of the story is up to us. If we as a people, who were once considered less than a fifth of a person can re-write history putting a black man and family in the white house, we can overcome the devastation the disease has taken in our lives. “Yes, we can.”
Reverend Penny Willis, M.Div. is the director of multicultural programs for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She is a ordained United Church of Christ Clergy and member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL. Reverend Penny is a certified sexual health educator. She is co-author of Faith and Healthy Sexuality and the recently revised Keeping It Real! faith-based youth sexuality curriculum for African-American youth. You can follow Reverend Penny on twitter @ reverendpwillis.
The views, opinions, and perspectives expressed in by guest and consultant bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, its state affiliates, it member organizations, or the National Black Church Initiative. The Religious Coalition is committed through its National Black Church Initiative to faithfully, prayerfully breaking the silence on issues related to sex, sexuality and religion.