Driven by a Vision
Meet some Philadelphia heroes who fight HIV/AIDS and seek to empower its victims
by Chris T. Johnson and Kristyn Komarnicki
Typical of many urban neighborhoods in the northeast part of the country, South Philadelphia features unbroken rows of identical houses, narrow one-way streets, and old church buildings on every other corner. The large brick one on Mifflin Street is home to a Church of God in Christ International church. Lead by Bishop Ernest McNear, True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church (TGT) may look like a typical inner-city church, but inside its walls is a rich web of holistic ministries that defies any expectations that either the street or the traditional façade might suggest.
"The upside of being the founder of TGT," says McNear, who started the church in 1985 as a tiny storefront operation, "is that you have the blessed opportunity to actualize a vision." In this case, he explains, that vision has been guided by the principles of "salvation, education, and inspiration." McNear spearheads an outreach that truly meets the needs of its members and the broader community.
Beneath the polished clergy attire is a man who knows what it means to cry out to God for salvation. An accomplished musician who struggled with drugs and rough living before God rescued him, McNear possesses a contagious passion for the transforming power of the gospel and for God's people. He was holistically oriented before that concept ever became popular, and today he leads the way in loving those who have HIV/AIDs, those who are incarcerated, and their families.
McNear believes that faith heals and insists that
AIDS is not too big for God,
especially when it comes to changing
the paralyzing stigma that the disease still holds.
TGT has been at the forefront of the fight, not only against HIV/AIDs, but also against the stigma and silence that surround the disease and discourage people from getting tested. Working with the Philadelphia Freedom from AIDS Campaign, McNear believes that faith heals and insists that AIDS is not too big for God, especially when it comes to changing the paralyzing stigma that the disease still holds. TGT promotes holistic healing by ministering to infected individuals and their families and by tirelessly educating the faith community about the disease, from annual prayer breakfasts on National AIDS Awareness Day to sponsoring screening and training events at TGT and throughout the city.
McNear has been partnering with Philadelphia FIGHT for over a decade. A comprehensive AIDS service organization that provides primary care, consumer education, advocacy and treatment research, FIGHT enjoys the leadership of tireless executive director Jane Shull, who joined in 1991. Under Shull's direction, FIGHT has grown from a small research organization to a powerful medical, education, and activism presence. FIGHT provides primary clinical care to uninsured and underserved people with HIV/AIDS at the Jonathan Lax Immune Disorders Treatments Center. A recent addition to the battery of resources and services offered by FIGHT is the John Bell Health Center, a comprehensive healthcare clinic that provides state of the art medical care to individuals returning from prison or jail who live with multiple chronic conditions and are challenged by socio-economic factors often associated with their incarceration.
Shull is convinced that partnering with the faith community
is key to resisting the spread of AIDS.
Shull is convinced that partnering with the faith community is key to resisting the spread of AIDS. At a gathering of faith leaders on World AIDS Day on December 1, she said:
We are in a very exciting time in the history of the AIDS epidemic. We know that when people take their HIV medicines they will not infect other people—no matter what they do—and we also know that treating everybody as soon as they become aware of their HIV will extend their lives. Yet, we … don't reach many of the people most in need because they don't reach out to us. Sadly, one reason for this is that when their families, or their faith communities, turn their backs, it is a devastating loss to the individual, and they will often simply stop trying to become and remain healthy. By our work together to reach communities of faith, we have been turning that tide, and giving churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples the tools that they need to support the people in their communities who need that support the most.
Driven by a vision of health for all, and a normal life even for those living with HIV, Shull and McNear began hosting an annual prayer breakfast for faith leaders in 2009 and in 2011 introduced the Faith Summit to Philadelphia's AIDS Education Month every June. In 2013 they launched the office of Faith Initiatives, directed by Rev. Dr. Calenthia Dowdy, in order to offer hope, light, wholeness, and transformation to persons living with HIV/AIDS. Through spiritual guidance, reflection, relationship building, outreach, and education, they are building a network of local faith communities that can engage and foster healing in supportive and holistic ways.
Together these Philadelphia heroes are bridging faith communities and bringing physical and spiritual health to some of the city's most marginalized people.
Chris T. Johnson is pastoral minister at Covenant House in Atlantic City, serving homeless youth as a visible sign of God's love and grace. Kristyn Komarnicki is ESA's director of communications.