By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — With each person that climbed the steps of his converted Harlem brownstone to take an HIV/AIDS test, the Rev. Terrance Kennedy hoped the stigma of the disease faded just a little bit more.
"This is a good thing. There is not enough education about this disease and too much stigma," said Kennedy, pastor of New Hope for the World Ministries on 126th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues.
As part of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Monday, Kennedy and his fellow pastors administered tests, dispensed information and condoms, and worked to lessen the impact of the disease in Harlem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the country's population but account for half of the HIV/AIDS cases. One in 74 New Yorkers has HIV, according to the New York City Department of Health. In Harlem, that number is 1 in 32.
"Harlem is one of the epicenters of the virus when it comes to the African-American community," said Janique Clark, a program coordinator for Harlem United which provides HIV/AIDS testing and services.
Reaching out to one of the most at-risk and vulnerable populations using ministers to break the stigma of the disease is a new tack that is backed by funding from the federal government.
"There is still a lot of institutional mistrust in the Harlem community and trust is really important in terms of changing behaviors," said Kali Lindsey, Harlem United's senior director for federal policy. "We know ministers are trusted in this community so if we get pastors to start spreading the message, more people will be concerned about their health."
This is the 11th year of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Outreach workers performed rapid testing that allows participants to swab their gums and have results in 20 minutes. While they wait for results, the counselors talk to the test-takers.
Many of the people coming in were referred by the social network set up by Harlem United where peer workers reach out to family and friends. It's another way of breaking down the stigma surrounding the disease and the mistrust.
"HIV does not have a face. We are getting to people that would not normally come across our doorsteps," said Clark.
Adding a minister to the mix only helped the situation, said Kennedy.
"When ministers test, it is an opportunity for us to do what we do best and minister to people's needs," he said.
Over the past few years, Kennedy said he had seen awareness of the disease increase. However, he remains concerned about the attitude toward HIV/AIDS amongst young people in Harlem.
"This younger generation does not have a healthy fear of the virus. They see Magic Johnson and they weren't alive in the 1980s when the virus was ugly and we didn't know as much as we do now," Kennedy said. "That's what we're working to change."