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St. Louis pastor wants negative stigma around HIV in the black community to change

Pastor Gwenndolyn Lee of Spirit of Love Church wants to change the negative stigma surrounding HIV in the black community. Her younger brother died from AIDS nearly 14 years ago.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Pastor Gwenndolyn Lee of Spirit of Love Church wants to change the negative stigma surrounding HIV in the black community. Her younger brother died from AIDS nearly 14 years ago.

More than 50 percent of HIV cases in the St. Louis region are in the African-American community. That’s according to a 2016 report from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. But the stigma surrounding the virus in the black community makes it a challenge to address.

Local organizations like Faith Communities United have been working to break the stigma down by partnering with several faith communities throughout the region, including Spirit of Love Church in St. Louis, lead by Pastor Gwenndolyn Lee. For Lee, the fear of discussing HIV in the black community, and especially in the black church, is a personal one.

Nearly 14 years ago, Lee’s younger brother Victor died from complications of AIDS. He was also gay. Lee said that although both of those things were known to their family, it was not something they talked about, which is not uncommon in many black households.

However, she said when Victor told her family — including their father, who was a pastor — about his HIV status, it changed things. HIV had a face they could associate it with.

"When [Victor] told the family, he took brochures and pamphlets, and he took condoms,” Lee said. “He had called everybody together — nieces, nephews, siblings and my parent. So when Victor brought all of the stuff to the house, apparently after he gave his speech about him having HIV and about safe sex and everything, everybody was silent, from what I was told. Because they were looking at my father, like, ‘Oh, my God. What is Papa going to say about this?’ And my father went over to the table and picked up a couple of condoms and put them in his pocket and kind of smiled. And then he went downstairs to his office. So I think that was him kind of affirming Victor’s message without giving a big speech.”

Lee said although her family did support Victor, many did not want the exact cause of his death to be public knowledge. But that changed for her when her church and Faith Communities United partnered with each other years later.

“There was a service held sponsored by Faith Communities United, and they have a quilt that was made,” Lee said. “And each church was invited to do something in memory of someone if they had a family member who died from AIDS. And my brother Victor was an artist. He was a wonderful, fabulous artist, and he made these t-shirts. And I took the only t-shirt that I had and we put it on the panel in honor and in memory of him.”

Lee posted a picture of the quilt on Facebook with a message about her brother dying from AIDS, with a note urging people to get tested for HIV.

“And it wasn’t up maybe two hours and then I got a call and text messages from my sister and brother [saying], ‘Take that down. He didn’t die from AIDS,’” she said. “And my sister called me and we had this conversation. They said, 'Our mother is going to be upset if you have that on Facebook.' But out of respect, I did take it down. I wasn’t happy about it, because you know, again, that is the problem. We don’t want to be honest and admit. And I just felt like that would have been a great legacy for his life."

Tackling issues like HIV and AIDS in the black community is a challenge when being gay in the black church is not widely accepted. But Lee said leadership often plays a key role in changing things, especially when the message by some pastors has been the same for years.

“I want our church to be a place where anybody is welcomed,” she said. “And I want our church to be able to have dialogue with people from the gay community. If members can put [a] face to HIV and AIDS; if members can get to know a person that is gay and who is HIV positive or they have AIDS; if they can put a face and get to know the person — instead of just the label — I think that will help bridge the gap and help spread the love.”

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.