Southside residents, clergy fight back against AIDS

December 9, 2013

Bryant hangs up a sex education poster inside one the classrooms at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church. (Photo credit/Geoffrey A. Cooper)

By Geoffrey A. Cooper

It’s been an uphill battle for Lindsay Bryant, who’s one of many trying to combat the ongoing debacle of HIV/AIDS in Richmond and the rest of Central Virginia.

The community educator and deacon at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church on Belt Boulevard says the casualties linked to HIV/AIDS continue to mount. Not retreating, Bryant is using her leverage inside of the church and the neighborhood to educate residents who are most vulnerable.

“God is a compassionate and loving God to all of us,” Bryant said.

Bryant has spent close to two decades promoting safe sex habits through Nia Incorporated of Greater Richmond. Nia – Swahili for ‘purpose’ – is an affiliate of Saint Paul’s Baptist Church and operates as an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention ministry. Nia Incorporated educates black men, age 18 and over who have sex with women, about safe sex behaviors and strategies.

Southside Richmond is one of the city’s main high-poverty areas. HIV and AIDS ranks at the top when it comes to state regions that are most infected. Two longtime city residents discuss how they’re fighting back against the stigmas.

The ministry was created in 1992 in response to local and national escalating rates of HIV/AIDS among African-Americans. Bryant, a Richmond native, has been with the project since 1995. She said her initial concerns escalated when she discovered many of the members in her congregation mentioned they knew someone who had HIV/AIDS.

The city of Richmond leads the Central Virginia region with the highest concentration of those infected. Of every 100,000 Richmond residents, 1,106 were living with HIV, according to the latest Virginia HIV Surveillance Quarterly Report by the state’s Department of Health.

Pamela Price, human services program supervisor for the Richmond City Health District, said in a telephone interview that many infections throughout the city — especially Southside, where the Saint Paul’s Baptist Church campus is located — are tied to areas where poverty is skyrocketing.

“So you have more individuals who are willing to engage in high-risk behavior, to meet a need, such as housing, some type of financial need,” Price said. “It still doesn’t prove that there’s a direct link, but we can at least know that disease is also occurring in areas where poverty is high, or where crime is high.

“It’s the behavior connected to poverty, not necessarily the infection itself,” Price said.

This Google Map is to show readers some of the features many everyday residents frequent each day in this Southside neighborhood. It draws attention to the lack of vital services this poverty-stricken area has. The health, social, and faith-based services are present, yet, it is in low abundance compared to other flourishing parts of the city. Due to the lackluster economic state of this community, many residents are unable to reach those services.

Even after having unprotected sex with multiple female partners, Vincent Terry still believed he was immune from HIV/AIDS.

Then all of a sudden, the dramatic weight loss happened– shedding 60 pounds in less than a month. Next was the loss of appetite, frequent vomiting, and zombie-like features.

Finally, the phone call came from doctors – he was HIV positive.

“I thought I was going to die; I wanted to blow my damn brains out,” Terry said.

Terry, who’s been homeless for five months, is one of thousands of residents throughout Richmond that Nia Incorporated is desperately trying to reach. He contracted HIV in 2003 through unprotected sex with multiple women.

Walking along Broad Rock Boulevard, his old neighborhood, Terry is looking for shelter from the cold. On the streets, it’s all about survival, Terry said, adding that his affliction with HIV means making “chess moves” instead of taking risky chances.

He said he is cautious of who he mingles with inside each shelter. One misunderstanding with one of his shelter mates about his disease could mean getting blacklisted by everyone.

“They wouldn’t want me in there. … They would be afraid they’ll catch something,” Terry said.

In this podcast, HIV survivor and longtime Richmond resident Vincent Terry discusses his 10-year bout with the disease and how’s he’s coped with it.

Other state grant-funded workshops through Saint Paul’s Baptist Church includes sensitivity training for area clergy on how to engage members of a congregation who might have HIV/AIDS; discussing with youth the importance of abstinence and body discovery; and building self-confidence and coping skills among women.

One group that continues to worry Bryant is young, black, gay men. She said special workshops in Nia Incorporated are actively targeting this population.

“As God accepts and loves us, then we should also accept and love all of the brothers and sisters of the world,” Bryant said.

There are 10,265 cases in Virginia of black men with HIV/AIDS. More than half have transmitted the disease through male-to-male contact. Close to three-fourths of white males statewide with HIV or AIDS also fell into that category, of the total 6,570 actually infected with HIV/AIDS.

“I know the feeling. At times, it’s grim,” said Ryland Roane, a HIV/STD/Viral Hepatitis Hotline Supervisor at the Virginia Department of Health.

Twenty-six years ago, Roane tested positive for HIV through MSM contact.

“It was traumatic, I’m not going to lie to you,” Roane said. “I did not think I was going to see the age of 30.”

Now, at age 56, Roane said he is working with Nia Incorporated and other local organization to save the lives of those young, gay, black men who are contracting the disease. He said HIV/AIDS are no longer stuck to large cities along major highways or just the gay, white male population.

“It’s no denying it,” Roane. “We can’t run away from it anymore. … From some degree it has gotten better when it comes to acceptance, but there’s still more work to be done.”

Bryant’s overall goal is to conduct a three-day city HIV/AIDS conference next February, using her advanced research findings from the Black AIDS Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles this past summer as a way to enlighten local residents about the disease.

“We (Saint Paul’s Baptist Church) are the one’s that have come here to help with this disease,” Bryant said. “I look forward to getting to zero.”

Below is a Storify presentation about the 25th annual World AIDS Day.