Bishop C.L. Sparks, pastor of New Pleasant Valley Church hosted a walk-a-thon and health fair in the Austin community on Saturday, Nov. 5.

The question “What are the black churches doing?” can be heard day in and day out, year-to-year. Maybe if we all participate more, and become part of the solution, more churches like New Pleasant Valley, located at 5443 Huron, will get involved with the HIV/AIDS issue.

This issue is extremely important to Austin, because this community is among the leading communities in all of Chicago with the highest numbers of AIDS/HIV victims. After the walk-a-thon concluded, motivational speaker and AIDS educator Rae C. Lewis-Thornton addressed the participants. Thornton was diagnosed with the AIDS virus in 1986, following the results of a Red Cross Blood drive she helped coordinate and participated in. Thornton was diagnosed HIV positive at age 23.

Thornton served National Youth Director for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Presidential Campaigns. Thornton was well on her way to a promising political organizer career. She served on Carol Mosley Braun’s senatorial campaign Advance Coordinator and as Illinois Youth Coordinator for Michael Dukakis’ 1988 Presidential Campaign. In 1992, she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and began speaking about her personal experience living with the disease.

Other panelist were Earnest Hite, of Black Health Alert, Lloyd Kelly, executive director “Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation, Dorothy Coleman, Access Community Health System. Agencies such as Sankofa, Mary Kay Cosmetics and Access Health Systems were present with tables set up with free pamphlets.

Bishop Sparks opening remarks explained how very serious the AIDS situation is in the Austin community.

“In Austin we leaped frog pass North Lawndale and Roseland. Austin community begins at Pulaski and Grand Avenue to Austin Avenue back to 16th Street. That isn’t a lot of territory …we see babies everywhere so that means people haven’t stopped having sex. Early detection and early prevention – there is going to be a cure for this disease, I believe it….There were some people who said Rev. Sparks you did radio, you were a DJ, you do Day Care, you do after school programs, but we need a voice from the religious community to speak against this AIDS epidemic.

“There are people who are sitting in the midst of us who have not been tested and know that they have this disease. I had a senior citizen come to me and say, ‘you know I got it, I haven’t got long to live so I might as well not get treatment, I might as well live the rest of my life like I want.’ Well that is the spirit of ignorance; we need not live in ignorance. The HIV/AIDS song is not being sung in Austin.”

Rev. Sparks went on to say Saturday, “there is not one preacher that I know out of 50 that I emailed, [or] faxed; not one showed up and marched today. We got people perpetrating a Christian fraud under the banner of Jesus. People are paying our people off.”

Earnest Hite from Black Health Alert added, “most of us will not [do anything] about our own lives until we’re near death. We’re not just talking about HIV/AIDS, we’re talking about the health of black folks.

“We’re talking about young people staying around so they can finish school, so they can get married, so they can raise families, so they can be part of the community, so they can make a change – that’s what it’s really all about. Black people are by the statistics are only 12.9 percent of the population, but when I hear somebody say that [black] women are 72 percent of the new HIV infections. That’s what we call a health disparity – black women should not be carrying that heavy load. Forty-six percent of black men who are sexual active with other men are positive.

Here’s the challenge for the West Side,” Hite continued, “it’s good to march, people got excited hanging out their windows, waving; folks were honking their horns, they said we heard about that AIDS thing, but I thought that was only on the North side. People do

what they want to do, when they want to do it and they won’t do anything different until they are ready to make a change.”

Dorothy Coleman, Access Community Health Network said her network has more than 43 medical centers throughout Chicago and the suburbs, the largest health center in the nation.

“I am the coordinator of the breast and cervical cancer education program,” Coleman told the audience. “A woman in the audience doesn’t have insurance; a referral can be written and they can get a Pap and a Mammogram for $10. You can’t beat this because these tests are expensive. Early detection saves lives; it’s a small price to pay to be healthy.

“We urge people to get these exams. [At the 26 churches I helped coordinate] we saw over 3,000 women last year about cervical and breast cancer. Out of those 3000 women only 600 showed up at out clinic, that is not good. What happened to the other 2,400? “Caucasian women get diagnosed at a 50 percent higher rate than black women, but black women died at a 75 percent rate; why is that? ‘We got business,’ ‘we’re single mothers’ – these are excuses. Take 10 minutes and go to the doctor. If detected early, there is an 80 percent survival rate.

Lloyd Kelly of ‘Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation’ pointed out that if another community of people had such high rates of prevalence and infection, the more Americans would be concerned. Kelly addressed some of his points to elected officials.

“I happen to have the honor of working very closely with State Rep. Constance Howard and I also have the honor of working closely with Cong. Danny K. Davis. Several years ago they both became very interested in working with HIV/AIDS, and they understand the power of the offices that they hold. And they began putting resources behind it – I say that to let you know a lot is going on.

“State Rep. Howard, with the help of the Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation, wrote the law called the Illinois African American Response Act. How many of you know that there is a law in Illinois that is directed for HIV for the African American community? On the North Side, there are two agencies that combined, have a $25 million budget per year. The largest agency on the South or West Side has less than three million. What’s wrong with this picture? We’re not getting mad. We’ve got to do something different when it comes to AIDS in the African American community and I think that should be(gin) by changing the funding structure.”

Bishop Sparks summarized Saturday’s event by saying, “now we see [that] our problem is us, ” he said, posing the question: why is the black church afraid to discuss this issue? Panelist gave various reason, but one of the great reasons was the disease was marketed as a gay white man disease. When you say gay in the black community there is denial. So blacks have been sold a bill of goods, rather than discussing that the disease can be sexually transmitted across race, sexual orientation and gender lines. Bishop Sparks plans to continue educating and addressing this serious issue.