pdrayton_fc.jpgRIVIERA BEACH — The Rev. Tony Drayton took four years to develop his dissertation on HIV/AIDS in the black community.

In the introduction to his book, Transformation and The Church: A Push Toward Acceptance Within the HIV/AIDS Pandemic, he says he did not understand the disease’s complexity until he was an intern at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Riviera Beach.

There, he said, he saw a young African-American male wheeled into the medical unit, while family and friends watched in disbelief, “praying for a miracle.”

But, he said, it was obvious they felt helpless. The young man was there to die. 

As a minister at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Riviera Beach for 14 years, Drayton said he was led by God to delve further into the issue of HIV/AIDS.

Now, he is encouraging other church leaders to tackle the touchy but important subject of AIDS.

In his book, Drayton calls out the church on what he considers various controversial issues or hot-button topics that have often conflicted with the church’s stringent moral stances.

Drayton’s church is one of the few in the Riviera Beach area that has an active HIV/AIDS ministry. The agency helps those in the community and the congregation cope with the illness. 

“Way back, AIDS was considered the ‘gay, white’ disease and that people of color were not affected, but everyone knows that was a myth,” Drayton said.

Drayton is not the only church leader who has addressed the scope of the AIDS pandemic in the black community.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing statistics from the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports that, “According to the 2000 census, African Americans make up approximately 13 percent of the US population. However, in 2005, African Americans accounted for 18,510 (49 percent) of the estimated 38,096 new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States in the 33 states with long-term, confidential name-based HIV reporting.’’

The primary “transmission category for African-American men was sexual contact with other men, followed by injection drug use and high-risk heterosexual contact,” the group stated on its website.

For women, the infections mostly came from high-risk heterosexual contact, followed by injection drug-use, the organization reported.

Drayton said his book takes on the subject of the disease from a prophetic, teaching and counseling perspective, but it also shows the face of AIDS in African-American women.

Then there is the concept of the “down-low” black man who says he is not gay, but has sex with men outside of his marriage. Though this was considered a prevailing reason why more African-American women were getting infected, Drayton said in his book that statistics still say this isn’t a proven theory.

His premise in addressing the disease, as a church body, is that “everything is spiritual.”

As a result, he said, we are made in the image of God, and along with that comes value, worth, dignity and purpose of life.

What impedes that, he said, is the stigma and shame that come from ignorance of the disease, he said, and this is often rooted in how we see ourselves. 

The starting point to fight this ignorance is in knowledge, support groups and guidance.

“The church should be the place that champions a sense of acceptance whatever the disease or lifestyle,” Drayton told the South Florida Times. “No one should have to validate their acceptance because we’re made in the image of God, whether infected or affected, homosexual or heterosexual.”

The dilemma within the church is in its stance on human sexuality, according to Drayton’s book.

“Some pastor’s won’t allow their outreach to pass out or teach about condoms, but in that they are sending the wrong message,” he said. “HIV/AIDS is a 100 percent preventable disease; it’s easier to prevent HIV than the common cold.”

He said pastors should still teach the church’s stance of sex only within marriage. But regardless of these teachings, people are going to have sex, and they aren’t going to stop. Often, it’s not the sexual encounters that are the issue, but failing to protect oneself, he said.

Drayton agreed that the longer you put off a sexual encounter, the better. He said that in the end, the best way to prevent getting HIV is abstinence.

Other pastors agreed with Drayton that the message from the pulpit needs to change.

Stressing that he was not condoning “risky behavior,” the Rev. Gerald D. Kisner of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach said, “We walk a tight line in discussing these issues. We don’t need to talk to people about safe sex if their schools and families can do that.”

He added: “But when the church has a captive audience, we ought to be teaching and advising on the issue as delicately as we can. It’s not condoning sex outside marriage, because the church has a strict moral position, but we’re realistic enough to know people aren’t ‘just saying no.’”

Kisner compared the churches’ efforts to that of someone watching a car headed toward a cliff. He said that person who is watching will not think, “Well, they’re speeding, so they deserve to go over the cliff.’’

He said he would holler and make sure the person sees where they are headed, instead.

Pastor Anton Manley of First Church of God in Christ in West Palm Beach said he still believes that the church should teach abstinence, no sex before marriage whatsoever, and absolute monogamy.

“There are spiritual and physical consequences to these actions,” Manley said. “I think the church should make an effort for continuous awareness on the issue and have it fresh in the minds of the congregation.”

All pastors seem to agree that, if it’s not addressed, specifically in the black community, the stigma and shame of AIDS will pervade the culture, and lead to even more infections.

“HIV/AIDS is like the modern day leprosy,” Kisner said. “Lepers were segregated in extreme ways from society, but Jesus said to be healing and wholesome in addressing the illness.”

Photo: The Rev. Tony Drayton