- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

On Sunday, I spent three hours in Oakland Baptist Church with my family and my Alexandria community supporting my cousin, former D.C. homicide Detective Alfonzo Terrell, in his fiery first sermon as a licensed minister.

The last time I was in church for three hours was almost two weeks ago at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria attending the wake and funeral of my young goddaughter’s toddler. A baby in a casket is an incomprehensible, surreal scene I hope never to view again.

Yet, at these happy “homecoming” and sad “homegoing” occasions held in different neighborhood houses of worship, I was struck by the strong sense of family, friendship and community that has continued to shape and fortify our lives for at least six generations regardless of how far a field we wander.

Talk about “He makes me lie down in green pastures” from the 23rd Psalm text of the reassuring “God Is My Provider” sermon that Cousin “Butch” preached.

How appropriate it was to sit between my mother and my son to sing “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” on Sunday when I compare this longstanding family and faith-based community with the painful, slow demise of other longstanding neighborhoods ravaged by joblessness, crime, disease and the separation of church and street.

Who hasn’t wondered why our communities, particularly predominantly black neighborhoods, experience so many social problems when there seems to be a house of worship on every corner? Have these holy edifices become irrelevant on the home front as their members have moved away to suburban “still waters”? Not so if you listen to Cousin Butch, who tells it like it is and “steps on toes” no matter who is seated in the congregation.

On Sunday, he spoke against the California court decision to remove the Pledge of Allegiance from schools because “we do do everything ‘under God.’”

We should minister to everyone under God, too, “not only those whose lifestyles we agree with,” says the Rev. Jacqueline Thompson. “He said if you love me, then feed my sheep, not only the ones you like.”

Ms. Thompson is the executive director of Shiloh Family Life Center Foundation, which includes the Church/Community Partnership against HIV/AIDS, a prevention and intervention outreach program that extends far beyond the downtown Shaw area where the church is located.

This afternoon the Family Life Center at 1510 Ninth St. NW and tomorrow afternoon at the Cada Vez Restaurant at 1438 U St. NW, the partnership will hold a two-day health fair targeting black, male heterosexuals that will focus on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through a program titled “For Men Who Love Women Only.” Besides testing and information, free haircuts, food and music, including Natti & the Jazz Company, there will be a “Straight Talk” panel discussion with radio personalities DJ Flexx, Matt Anderson, Justine Love and Tommy Ford, formerly of the “Martin” TV sitcom.

Shiloh Baptist Church in the District refuses to shy away from taboo subjects such as mental health and homosexuality as well as HIV/AIDS, which is ravaging black communities.

“We will come to you on the street, in the shelter, anywhere…and produce programs that show folks that [the church] really does care,” community outreach worker Eric Turner said. “That’s what Jesus did.”

Ms. Thompson, 34, the daughter of “an old school” pastor, a graduate of Howard University’s Divinity School and the former youth minister at Shiloh also maintains a nonjudgmental demeanor.

“While churches and faith leaders are debating the holiness of issues, people are dying; while we’re having a conversation about the morality of certain behavior, people are dying and we must stop that. We must give them life-empowering information to save their lives,” Ms. Thompson said.

Black heterosexual males are often left out of the outreach programs with many of them still incorrectly thinking HIV/AIDS is a homosexual man’s disease even though the District has one of the fastest-growing rates of new infections in the country for men and women.

Ms. Thompson referred to an alarming 2003 grass-roots survey conducted by the venerable Regional Addiction Program (RAP), which this week celebrates 35 years of helping Washington drug addicts recover.

That agency found that of the heterosexual black men ages 18 to 44, living in all but Ward 3, “nearly 90 percent reported having sex with between one and five partners within the 30 days prior to the study, although only half of these men reported always wearing a condom.”

“We need to get the message out that unprotected sex regardless of your partner’s gender is risky behavior. Don’t do it,” Ms. Thompson said. Some men feared that using condoms would adversely affect their relationships.

“It’s not about trust, it’s about responsibility; if I take care of me, then I take care of you,” says Anthony Rawls, an outreach supervisor for the Shiloh informational program, which is conducted, in part, at 48 beauty salons and barbershops in the area.

Mr. Rawls tells countless men to “come out of their macho,” and to take better care of their overall physical health, including getting tested for HIV/AIDS. “Prevention is the key,” he said.

Mr. Rawls said more men are getting educated about health issues because they are “tired of going to funerals.”

As Cousin Butch said on Sunday, “I’m so glad to see so many people out today, and it’s not a funeral.”

Preventing funerals is why Ms. Thompson, Mr. Turner and Mr. Rawls defend Shiloh’s decision to take on the at-risk behavior that can cause HIV/AIDS infections as a critical health issue. “We have to stop going to funerals and saying people died of cancer” when they died of AIDS, she said.

“We’re here to serve. The church has always been the bedrock in the black community and the place where we get strength if it does,” Ms. Thompson said.

Amen, I do.

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