The black church can be a powerful tool in HIV/AIDS education and prevention, according to Magdalena Szaflarski, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Sociology, who plans to replicate in Birmingham an innovative program that found success under her leadership in Ohio.
Szaflarski led a survey in the Cincinnati area of religious organizations to investigate their involvement in talking to congregations about HIV/AIDS prevention. The data from her study, “Faith-Based HIV Prevention and Counseling Programs: Findings from the Cincinnati Census of Religious Congregations," was recently published in AIDS and Behavior.
With a growing number of HIV educational initiatives in African-American communities, Szaflarski suggests there are opportunities for black congregations to make a difference.
“Black faith leaders are often unaware of the extent of HIV epidemic in their community,” she said. “Research shows that once they acquire this information, they feel urged and empowered to take action.”
With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Szaflarski collected data in the Cincinnati-area and into Kentucky from 447 religious congregations, including information about black churches’ levels of HIV/AIDS programming. Specifically, she asked the churches if they offered any HIV prevention programs, education, testing or counseling in the last two years. She also polled them on their theology and structure and examined relationships between these factors and HIV programming in a way no other published study has done.
More than a third of Black Protestant congregations in the study offered HIV/AIDS prevention programs, education, testing or counseling at the time of the study.
“On the down side, a large proportion of churches, more than 60 percent, did not engage in HIV-related activities – although their communities were likely affected by HIV and could benefit from faith-based HIV programs,” Szaflarski said.
Factors that influenced churches’ engagement in HIV programming that explained most of the variation included location, membership and broader community involvement. Identifying these factors was key to understanding the gaps and opportunities for intervention on the ground, she said.
Armed with the knowledge, Szaflarski then worked with a team of community stakeholders, including a faith-based HIV/STD testing agency and a university-based AIDS education center, to help the churches come up with programs to educate their communities about the disease within the comfort of their theological realms.
“We started off talking to them about the HIV epidemic among African-Americans, as well as related social and cultural challenges,” Szaflarski said. “We asked them, ‘Are you ready to be an educational center, develop prevention programming and perhaps allow HIV testing in your congregation?’”
With funding from the Center for Clinical and Translational Science and Training at the University of Cincinnati, Szaflarski and her group worked with the churches for a year. They engaged community stakeholders to brainstorm faith-based strategies to address HIV. The data was analyzed and disseminated back to the churches, along with mini-grants, to help them enhance their HIV programming. A manuscript from this work is under review for publication.
“The community program is taking a life of its own, becoming a ripple effect,” Szaflarski said. “We are excited to see this.”
Szaflarski hopes to replicate her research efforts in Birmingham in collaboration with UAB’s Center for AIDS Research, which has a long history of engaging the faith community in HIV-related issues.
“Our pilot project has made an impact,” Szaflarski said. “It feels good to know that we have helped to mobilize the faith community to take a stand on HIV. We do feel like catalysts for change.”