March 31, 2003 – Balm in Gilead, a group with a program designed to get the clergy to play a greater role in the fight against HIV and AIDS, was introduced in the Virgin Islands recently in a series of workshops on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
For three days in mid-March, organizers explained to local religious leaders how they can set up HIV/AIDS health ministries in their faith communities. The program also is aimed at helping religious leaders to be better prepared to confront the stigma that can keep those who need help from coming forward.
A goal of the 14-year-old Balm in Gilead group based in New York is to educate church leaders about how to prevent HIV/AIDS. "We are now into the third decade of AIDS and are still without a cure," said Maurice O. Franklin, director of Faith Based Technical Assistance.
"The grave reality regarding this pandemic in African-American, Caribbean and African communities demands that our religious institutions lead the struggle to stop the spread of this disease and to deliver and demand more services and resources for people infected and affected," Franklin said in a statement released after a workshop session on St. Thomas.
Two sessions were held at Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas; a third took place at Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix. According to Pastor Toi Barbel of the International Gospel Center of St. Thomas, it was an opportunity to introduce a more user-friendly version of HIV policies from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"CDC wanted help in changing their policy language that was heavy with medical jargon, and to make it more user friendly to clergy and other community folks taking part in the Balm in Gilead," she said.
"We were like the guinea pigs for the new training module they're kicking off in the faith-based community," local AIDS activist Patricia Odoms said. She ticked off a list of training topics — strategic planning, compassionate leadership, basic medical facts about HIV and AIDS, identifying different stages of grief, an introduction to the Patient's Bill of Rights.
Barbel said she learned of the program when she was invited along to the Democratic National Convention with Delegate Donna M. Christensen.
The name is taken from a Biblical phrase referring to the healing of the afflicted through prayer, education, advocacy and service. That's a tall order in the Virgin Islands, former public health nurse Sally Browne, now a member of the Community Planning Group for HIV/AIDS, said.
Most churches and church leaders don't want to talk about HIV or AIDS. "What we say is that the church's silence is killing people," Browne said.
She recalled a conversation with the pastor of a large church at an earlier workshop. She asked the pastor how many members of his the congregation were HIV infected, "and he said, 'I have no idea.'"
Barbel said she heard a minister taking part in one of the March workshops express a similar lack of awareness.
"One pastor said we need more faith," she said. "What he was saying was we need more boldness, to step out and disperse the information. Because of the stigma, a lot of people with HIV and AIDS are being shunned away."
At the other end of the spectrum, Browne said, a small group of priests and ministers have made it their business to attend workshops and find out more about how they can serve HIV-infected people and family members who turn to the church for comfort and advice.
For members of the clergy newly entering the world of HIV disease control and awareness, organizers of the March workshops offer a number of resources. Among them are a telephone hotline where they can ask questions and get answers, and a follow-up training session.
"We're going to have it" — a follow-up workshop, Barbel said, because participants "got a lot" at the first one. "They got a volume full of information in two days."

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