( ENSPIRE Interviews ) The HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Southern United States Cannot Be Ignored
ENSPIRE Contributor: Halima McDoom
Based in North Carolina, Dr. Shonda R. Jones serves as the Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Integrative Learning at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Her position as a theological educator, ordained elder, and local organizer informs the work she does for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS.
Recently, Wake Divinity joined the Gilead COMPASS Initiative® to establish the Faith Coordinating Center. The COMPASS Initiative is a $100 million partnership with southern-based organizations striving to combat the HIV epidemic. Its core values are reducing stigma-related harm and increasing education around the disease. “We will work with faith-based partners to build awareness, expand education and training, and develop spiritually integrated tools to support all people impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and in particular, to provide resources for those disproportionately affected by the disease”, says Jones. The Faith Coordinating Center will offer pastors and clergy training, spiritually-integrated health ministries, and strategies in transformative storytelling. These programs focus on all-encompassing liberation. Wake Divinity, under the leadership of Jones, will encourage faith communities to expand their understanding of HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Jones is one of many faith leaders who are reestablishing Christianity at the center of healing for Black and LGBTQ communities, specifically in the South. She states, “To accomplish these aims, we leverage long-standing commitments to and experience with social justice concerns, inclusive and intentional interfaith engagement, and positive relationships with LGBTQ communities.” Many factors have prevented those who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS from receiving necessary care and treatment. Statistics show that, despite making up 13% of the U.S. population, 67% of all women diagnosed with HIV are Black. This racial disparity is tethered to the systemic challenges that have failed Black women, in particular. Consequently, when faced with stigma, poverty, minimal access to adequate health care, and lack of awareness around the disease, Black women are dying at alarmingly high rates.
It is critical to save the lives of America’s most disenfranchised and forgotten. As a Black womanist, Dr. Jones says “… my religious and moral reflections place Black women at the center. This methodology for me is not only liberative, but places needed value on thriving and flourishing amid the oppressive systems at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexism, and heterosexism … if not us, who else will save us?” The gospel truly is an occasion to rise to. Dr. Jones’s advocacy for HIV/AIDS awareness and her commitment to the survival of Black women is a testament to this.