'Love the sinner, hate the sin."
If you're like me and you spent the vast majority of your childhood Sundays in church, you've heard the phrase more than once. Generally speaking, this phrase can be interpreted as an innocuous call to believers to love people regardless of their sins and to reserve their disapproval for the sinners' iniquities. Sounds like a reasonable request: Love your addict uncle, but hate his addiction. Love your defiant child, hate their defiance.
But if your church-going experience was similar to mine, it is likely that the only time you heard this phrase was almost exclusively in reference to same-gender relationships and attractions and the condemnation that will befall them (Leviticus 20:13), with little reference to the Christ-centered love we are to impart to others. It is a pattern that has long made me uneasy. That same uneasy feeling would revisit me as I matured and really started to understand the interpretation of biblical texts in some sermons which focused upon the sins against one's body (1 Corinthians 6:18) and the supposed role and place of women
These feelings of unease have grown steadily within me, causing me to ask some serious questions of the institution that has guided my faith. And, at times, the only thing that has kept me grounded is faith itself: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11-1).
I speak frankly about my relationship with the church because I know it is not an outline. And I want to call attention to it because I often worry that the Black Church, one of the strongest pillars in African American culture, may not be utilizing its full potential to serve the community's social justice needs today - including around HIV.
In 2016, if Black America were its own country, it would rank 16th in the world for people with HIV. In this year of 2016, when sweeping violence increasingly plagues our nation, we've lost conscience-raising and socially-transformative icons, and our nation's first black president ends his second term in office, 44 percent of all new HIV infections will be among African Americans. In 2016, the highest number of individuals living with HIV inthe U.S. reside in the South, colloquially known as the Bible Belt. And in 2016, the NAACP's Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative initiative marks its fifth year in its ongoing efforts to capitalize on the historical importance, relevance, and influence of the Black Church in African American culture to mobilize awareness and action to address the HIV epidemic in our community via our faith leaders.
The mission of The Black Church and HIV is not to change what people believe. It is to reframe the HIV epidemic as a social justice issue, because current HIV disparities are the result of social inequities in American society and health care that affect individual behaviors and outcomes. The high rates of HIV among Black Americans point to the overwhelming injustices in the economic, political, healthcare, and educational systems in this country. For generations, the NAACP and Black faith leaders have been catalysts for change on critical social justice issues including voting rights and employment opportunities. As trusted conveners and educators of the Black community, faith leaders can be a powerful force for change with respect to the HIV epidemic, and the Day of Unity is a call to all our faith leaders to reflect, take a stand and take action against HIV.
At times it seems questionable whether this powerful institution is willing to focus first and foremost on pursuing social justice and fulfilling Christ's call to love one another as He loved us. Yet there are many faith leaders leading the charge in the movement to reverse the HIV epidemic - and I have cried tears from my eyes in their houses of worship. This movement is truly an uphill battle, but with leaders like The Black Church and HIV advisers, ambassadors, local champions, and Day of Unity partners, the Black Church advances further up that hill, one prayer, one sermon, one test at a time, as the institution finds its way home.
Bernadette Onyenaka serves as Health Programs Specialist for the NAACP.