Pastor's HIV Test Shines Light 07/03/2013

Pastor's HIV Test: March 5, 2013

Pastor Steve Jerbi of All Peoples Church (center) and youth director Elijah Furquan (left) take an HIV test at church Sunday to show members how easy it is to know your status. Ronnie Grace (right) does HIV testing for the agency Diverse and Resilient.

Ciera McKissick/ Acceptance Journal Coordinator with Diverse and Resilient

Pastor Steve Jerbi of All Peoples Church (center) and youth director Elijah Furquan (left) take an HIV test at church Sunday to show members how easy it is to know your status. Ronnie Grace (right) does HIV testing for the agency Diverse and Resilient.

So Jerbi had a choice. He could continue to preach that sex is reserved for marriage and ignore the uptick of HIV-positive statistics or do something proactive to shine a light on the HIV and health care crisis in Milwaukee.

Jerbi not only chose the latter; he took a controversial but eye-opening approach by taking an HIV test - along with his youth director - in church before his congregation on Sunday. By the time his sermon on "acceptance" was over, the entire congregation knew the men's results: negative.

Jerbi and his youth director, Elijah Furquan, not only showed how easy it was to get tested; they also showed a congregation of 200 how powerful it is for a person to know his or her status. Churches in the areas hardest hit by HIV can't address the concerns of a community by ignoring a disease with epidemic numbers.

Talking about HIV is not easy. It's actually downright uncomfortable. It's one thing for a pastor to talk about topics such as gun violence and homelessness; it's quite another to talk about HIV.

Most pastors teach that sex should be reserved for marriage.

Guess what? Most people don't wait, and if the only message people are hearing from churches is abstinence and sex within marriage, then the churches are failing to deal with the realities facing our community.

"We must talk about prevention and protection as well and encourage testing," Jerbi said.

Testing is painless, and knowing one's status not only can prolong a person's life; it also can save lives by people knowing their status and taking the necessary steps to protect others.

Furquan, 20, said besides diabetes and gun violence, HIV is one of the leading killers among African-American men.

When Jerbi asked Furquan - who has been a member of the church for 13 years - if he would take the HIV test in church with him on Sunday, Furquan said he jumped at the opportunity because he knew that by taking the test publicly, it would encourage others to think about getting tested.

"I figure I could get someone else to do it to and possibly save a life," Furquan said.

All Peoples Church, at 2600 N. 2nd St., is about 70% black, 10% Hispanic and 10% white. The church is a mix of young and old, and for more than a decade the church has been accepting of those from the LGBT community.

Jerbi, 35, who is white, said many of his members come from areas directly affected by the HIV crisis. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that four in 10 black, gay and bisexual men in Milwaukee are HIV-positive. Most of these men are poor and lack adequate access to health care.

There are many reasons for the spread of HIV in the black community. Black gay men and bisexual men have a smaller dating pool, and the stigma associated with being black and gay forces some men to go "underground" for sex.

Furquan said some young people's families even throw them out of the house or treat them so badly when they come out as gay or bisexual that they contemplate suicide.

Brenda Coley, a spokeswoman at Diverse and Resilient, a local agency with several HIV prevention programs, said Jerbi's HIV test shows how far the church has come but said there is still a ways to go.

Churches don't want to talk about HIV/AIDS because talking about it opens the door to doing something about it, and that's when things get hard.

And, yes, a lot of it comes down to personal responsibility. But when a family turns its back on a child because he or she is gay and kicks the child out on the street, what options does the young person have besides couch surfing or turning dates for a safe place to sleep?

Curbing the spread of HIV will take a great effort. The faith community and faith leaders need to be at the table and willing to help. Some African-American ministers are beginning to recognize the urgent need to take action on the HIV epidemic in the black community, but change has still been slow.

We are more than 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and black Americans continue to be the ones most infected at alarming rates.

Jerbi knows that 100% of the church members were not behind his public HIV test, but he said he would feel he wasn't doing his job as a servant of God if he continued to ignore the obvious.

God wants us to be safe, and you can't do that by being silent, he said.

James E. Causey is a Journal Sentinel editorial writer, columnist and blogger. Email Twitter: jecausey

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