Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph leveled a scathing attack on the faith-based community Saturday for what she described as its silence on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She also criticized the federal government.
“Silent for too long,” Miss Ralph said to the mostly religious audience, “and your silence will not save you.”
Her remarks were made during an HIV/AIDS conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where she was the guest speaker. Sponsored by the D.C. Department of Health, the One in the Spirit HIV/AIDS conference brought together area houses of worship and urged them to take part in the fight against the deadly virus. The Tony-nominated Miss Ralph is best-known for her portrayal of Deena Jones in the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” and for her role on the TV sitcom “Moesha.” She was starting on Broadway in the early 1980s; HIV was first diagnosed in the United States in 1981, when gay men started getting sick with a rare cancer.
“Those were some good times,” Miss Ralph said, “but in the midst of one of the best times of my life came the worst. And the worst was when men, up and down Broadway, just started dropping dead of a mysterious disease.
“Most of them died of the stigma, shame and silence because we don’t talk about that. One by one, my friends just died.”
There were 9,312 AIDS-related deaths in Washington from the beginning of the epidemic in 1981 to Dec. 1, 2007, according to the 2008 D.C. HIV/AIDS Epidemiology report, released in March.
A longtime HIV/AIDS fundraiser and advocate for prevention, research and development, Miss Ralph accused the faith community and federal government of complacency.
“We can be in our nation’s capital, where everybody knows the facts, everybody knows what’s going on, and everybody has decided to do absolutely nothing,” she said.
“That’s right,” shouted one man.
“And everybody wakes up every day knowing the pain and the suffering of people within the community, but somehow they have found it in their minds to think it’s OK that those people are suffering,” she said.
According to the D.C. epidemiology report:
c At the end of 2007, 15,120 people were living with HIV/AIDS in the District, accounting for 3 percent of all D.C. residents.
c D.C. residents age 40 to 49 are the most significantly impacted by HIV/AIDS, with more than 7 percent in this age group living with HIV/AIDS.
c Blacks continue to be the most severely impacted, with more than 4 percent of black residents having HIV, followed by Hispanics (1.9 percent) and whites (1.4 percent).
c Blacks have the highest burden of disease, with 6.5 percent of all black males in the District living with HIV/AIDS.
Some clergy agreed with Miss Ralph.
“She was truthful,” said Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks of the Inner Light Ministries in Southeast Washington. “AIDS is the leprosy of today. It’s only asking us what we believe more in: our fear or our faith.
“If the church had jumped in and really spoke up 15 or 20 years ago and looked at this as a health issue and not dealing with sexuality and all of the other myths that went along with this,” he said, “we would be much further along than we are now. In 2009, we still don’t have all the churches involved.”
Joseph Young is a writer living in Washington.