Merlene Davis: Free dinner offers a chance to learn about HIV/AIDS

Logo for a conference on HIV/AIDS scheduled for Friday and Saturday at the Clarion Hotel, 1950 Newtown Pike.
Logo for a conference on HIV/AIDS scheduled for Friday and Saturday at the Clarion Hotel, 1950 Newtown Pike.

The Rev. Troy I. Thomas was involved in HIV/AIDS awareness programs in Philadelphia, where he pastored a church before being appointed to Lexington's St. Paul A.M.E. Church in 2007.

"It was a major stigma in the black church for some reason," Thomas said, adding some church members thought AIDS was a gay disease and that "they" deserved what they got.

But times have changed.

"We as a people felt the mind-set of the stigma went against Christian principles," he said.

One of his mentors, who has a church in Wilmington, Del., that reaches out to the HIV/AIDS community, once said, "If we are really the church, how can we save a soul if the soul is dead?"

"That struck me and that is how we got involved," Thomas said.

His wife, the Rev. Maxine Thomas, who has a ministry that focuses on women's health, held a conference recently which included HIV testing. "There were so many participating, 20 of them couldn't be tested because the testers had to leave early," he said. "That shows progress. The information is out there."

Beverly Mitchell, minority initiative coordinator for HIV/AIDS at the Kentucky Department for Public Health, wants to hear more stories like that, especially from the faith community.

Many churches, particularly in Louisville and Lexington, have become non-traditional partners in the fight to inform the general public about testing and about HIV/AIDS. The effort began about 15 years ago, she said, when churches still didn't want to talk about the disease or its consequences in their congregations.

As those churches opened their doors to testing, more cases were diagnosed. And now new cases are found in people as young as 16. "They are getting younger," Mitchell said. "We need to get a grip."

That's why the 17th Annual African-American and Hispanic/Latino Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS, scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Lexington, will again feature the Faith-Based Initiatives Program.

That program, on Friday, will feature keynote speaker Dr. Karen Williamson Krigger, associate professor at the University of Louisville's School of Medicine, who will speak on "How to Grow an HIV Garden of Love."

On Saturday, the conference will include the Latino Commission on AIDS presenting a town hall forum during the morning session. There will also be breakout sessions to explore topics such as substance abuse and the challenges of viral hepatitis.

The theme of this year's conference is "Faces of AIDS," based on the 2000 photographic documentary called The Faces of HIV/AIDS in Kentucky by Peggy Blythe. People living with HIV/AIDS were photographed and given the opportunity to tell their stories and share what they have learned from living with the disease. The idea was to provide the public with an opportunity to look into the faces of those infected and be reminded of their humanity.

Blythe will be on hand to answer questions.

"We have people coming from all over the United States," Mitchell said. "A lot of folks are coming to see what we do, being a small state. We haven't forgotten about the disease."


Faces of AIDS

What: 17th Annual African-American and Hispanic/Latino Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS. All events held at Clarion Hotel, 1950 Newtown Pike.

Aug. 2: Faith-based Initiatives Program. Free, including dinner. 6-8 p.m.; registration required, 4-6 p.m.

Aug. 3: The Latino Commission on AIDS town hall forum, breakout sessions and the photo-documentary "The Face of HIV/AIDS in Kentucky" by Peggy Blythe. $10. 9 a.m.; registration 7:30-9 a.m.

Information: Call Beverly Mitchell, 1-800-420-7431.