Hispanic Church Leaders Shy Away From Topic of AIDS in Community
By ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2004 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON –New research indicates Hispanic church leaders are trailing their religious colleagues and the general public in their understanding of HIV/AIDS and how to address it.
Preliminary findings for a report by the Center for the Study of Latino Religion, revealed at an annual gathering here capped by the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Friday (June 4), showed many Hispanic church leaders view the disease primarily as a gay illness and don't consider it to be a church priority.
"Many people don't understand how AIDS is acquired, the complexity of ways it is acquired," said Edwin Hernandez, director of the center at the University of Notre Dame. "In our conversations, we found a lot of simplistic understanding of the disease."
Researchers said they found hesitancy among clergy to reveal their ignorance at training sessions with people more familiar with the disease.
The Rev. Luis Cortés is president of Esperanza USA, a national faith-based organization that unveiled Pacto de Esperanza (or Pact for Hope) last year to increase AIDS education among Hispanics.
"We're so far behind the general populace and the church in general when it comes to HIV education," said Cortés, whose Philadelphia-based organization sponsored the Notre Dame study. "In the last couple of decades, while everyone else was having education and prevention programs, they did not happen in our churches and in our communities in general."
His organization's Web site lists information on how Hispanic churches can "break the silence" about HIV/AIDS and calls HIV infection a leading cause of death for Latinos from ages 25 to 44.
Additional efforts are under way to help the Hispanic church community catch up with other AIDS initiatives.
Cortés traveled earlier this year to Africa with African-American leaders from Philadelphia to learn more about how AIDS is affecting that continent.
"Our major concern right now is Hispanic people in the U.S., but this is a global crisis and we need to see it as such," said Cortés, an American Baptist minister.
On Wednesday at a dinner focused on the AIDS issue, Esperanza USA honored three local Latino faith-based AIDS ministries that have been working in Cleveland, Miami and New York.
That same evening, Latin Grammy-winning artist Marcos Witt premiered a new song to draw attention to HIV/AIDS called "Hay Una Respuesta" (or "There is an Answer").
Witt said in an interview that he hopes the ballad will encourage people affected by AIDS and prompt greater involvement in addressing the disease.
"Hopefully, it'll spark a fire inside of people to say, `Hey, we can do something about this. Let's get going," Witt said.
The Notre Dame study, whose full results will be released this fall, includes a survey of 607 Chicago churches and information from focus groups with Latino religious leaders in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and Philadelphia. Researchers plan to create a directory of Latino religious organizations working on HIV/AIDS for those same five cities, Hernandez said.