Elizabeth Martenia used to cry as she walked out of her Joliet church in the early ’90s.

The congregation had become her support system, but she feared losing them all if she revealed the secret that consumed her.

So she buried her reality. She stopped going to the doctors, stopped taking care of her body and her mind. Martenia pretended that the HIV she had wasn’t there.

“I was so beat down in this church, not being able to be honest about it,” said Martenia, who still lives in Joilet but now attends a church on the South Side. “You don’t get the help, you don’t get the guidance. These were people who were supposed to know how to deal with this. And I thought I shouldn’t say anything.”

The pastors at Martenia’s new church have a different take. They believe that promoting a culture of silence on HIV/AIDS will perpetuate the worst health epidemic currently facing black Americans.

“People see that we don’t judge them for it,” said KenQwonna Clarke, pastor of Voice of the Word Church in Englewood with her husband Stephen. “If you’re going to address the issue, don’t undercut it. Deal with the lifestyle separately.”

Clarke and her husband are among a growing number of Chicago clergy who see their role as more than merely preaching church doctrine. Condemning non-marital sex and homosexuality is no longer the only priority. At this point, the stakes are simply too high, they point out.

The Clarkes joined other Chicago pastors recently on the West Side to discuss how black churches can better address the long-tabooed subject of HIV/AIDS in the black community.

“I might tell them, ‘What you’re doing, I’m not feeling it, but your health is more important,'” Clarke said.

Nearly 20 years after Martenia’s diagnosis, the black community is being decimated by the AIDS virus. While blacks account for just 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up over 50 percent of the country’s approximately 40,600 HIV/AIDS cases. The disease is now the number one killer of black women ages 23-34.

“When I was a kid, [folks] used to say ‘They’d find something to kill all the black people.’ Well, guess what? This is it,” said Lloyd Kelly, co-founder of “Let’s Talk, Let’s Test,” a Chicago-based foundation dedicated to fighting the spread of AIDS among African Americans.

The foundation helps small groups write grants and deal with government agencies. It also worked for passage of the Illinois African-American HIV/AIDS Response Act in 2005. The bill led to the testing of 35,000 Illinois prison inmates in its first year, and 60,000 in its second. A few years ago, only 300 inmates were being tested.

But many black church leaders are still reluctant to talk about the crisis, even though, according to Kelly, no one is in a better position to do so. Seventy percent of African Americans regularly attend church, giving clergymen an unparalleled audience and, some say, a responsibility to their congregations.

Kelly’s plan of attack is simple: to focus on prevention through church-sponsored testing. The first step, he noted, is ensuring that everyone with HIV knows they have it.

On March 30, pastors involved with the program will give a sermon about HIV/AIDS, and take a collection earmarked for AIDS. The money will be used to buy 500,000 testing kits and certifying two members of each congregation throughout Illinois to test for HIV.

No one is sure how many churches will participate, but Kelly senses that religious figures are more receptive to confronting HIV/AIDS head-on than they were even a few years ago.

“We appealed to their humanity,” Kelly said. “We started really going after churches in 2000 to 2002, by saying this is not a morality issue — it’s a public health issue.”

Once testing becomes more widespread, some hope the stigma and misconceptions about AIDS still lingering in the black community will subside.

Some clergy, thought, will continue to resist the idea, said Zach Gibson, an assistant pastor at Austin’s House of Correction Church of God and Christ, 5804 W Division.

“Many come from a generation where sexual talk was taboo,” he said. “We need to talk about this. It may not be comfortable, but you’ll see how good it can be for the community.”