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#2956: Ministers join to fight against AIDS (fwd)


Published Tuesday, March 21, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Ministers join to fight against AIDS By ANDREA ROBINSON

 Six bodies lay before him, five men and one woman, all Haitian
Americans, all under 35, all dead of AIDS. There in his funeral parlor
one day last year, Enoch Milien knew it was time to do something. ``I
felt so sad because all of these are young people, and they don't know
what precautions to take. It's not supposed to be this way,'' he said.
 Milien's awakening has become a call to action: the first collective
effort by South Florida's minority clergy to attack HIV/AIDS. More than
70 Haitian-American ministers have signed on. Determined to coax some
300,000 Haitian Americans in South Florida to take an aggressive role
against a virus that threatens their community, the pastors intend
 to start AIDS training in their churches and neighborhoods. Plans are
to develop courses in HIV prevention and care to be offered along with
regular Sunday school classes. They also have taped ads for
Creole-language radio stations around the country. The group is called
the Conference of Haitian Pastors United in Christ. It was organized by
Milien, a Miami-Dade funeral director and associate pastor at
Evangelical Philadelphia Baptist in Miami, and fellow Haitian-American
minister, the Rev. Harold Vieux.


 Members are mostly from Miami-Dade, but more than a dozen from Broward
have signed on. And the list is growing. By year's end, the pastors hope
to have representation in both Orlando and Tallahassee. ``We don't have
all the solutions, but we know we can develop the network to say,
 `Go over here and get help,' '' said Vieux, an administrator at a
Public Health Trust clinic in North Miami. Health-care givers are
cheering the group, saying clergy involvement could be a powerful
antidote to deep-seated denial in the community since the earliest years
 of the AIDS epidemic. While numbers of infections increased during the
1990s, action in the black churches by and large was muted. Even heavy
criticism by AIDS activists did little to push ministers -- with a few
notable exceptions -- into public action. ``The fact that, the pastors
are finally taking a stand will help in the fight to getting
 education to the community,'' said Ketty Ledan, an AIDS educator for
the Miami-Dade Health Department.


 Ledan said Haitian Americans typically have a high level of respect for
two professions: doctors and ministers. Several of the ministers also
are in the health-care profession, so it's an added benefit, Ledan said.
 ``If they say so, then it's true,'' she said. ``The fact that pastors
are coming in will render the job better, in terms of education and
prevention.'' Ledan and Vieux pointed out that cultural influences and
superstitions pose an added challenge.  For example some Haitians still
believe HIV stems from a vodou curse and can only be cured through
vodou. Still, others believe the AIDS threat is not real and is
 used by the U.S. government to discourage Haitians from immigrating
here. ``It's difficult. You have a lot of myths. A lot of people that
give out misinformation,'' Ledan said.


 Then there's the literacy problem. A large number of Haitian Americans
can not read or write in English or in Creole, rendering useless the
standard education workshops and pamphlets -- most of which are printed
in English and Spanish. Ledan said health educators are forced to
improvise with pictures and personal anecdotes. That is a situation Dr.
Laurinus Pierre knows all too well. Pierre, director of the Center for
Haitian Studies in Little Haiti, complains that more Haitian Americans
 are seeking information about the virus and the state should do more to
provide materials that they can understand. The center, a leading source
of education, health and social outreach mostly in Little Haiti, has
seen its AIDS caseload increase considerably in the last five
 years, Pierre said. Last year, some 800 HIV and AIDS patients sought
services at CHS, compared with 600 just two years ago.


 AIDS already has exacted a heavier toll among blacks in South Florida,
compared with whites and Hispanics. According to figures from Miami-Dade
Health Department, 11,378 black adults and children have developed
full-blown AIDS since 1981, compared with 4,141 whites and 7,422
Hispanics. Haitian Americans account for 2,389 of those figures.
 Marcel Metayer, pastor of the 320-member Renaissance Evangelical
Baptist Tabernacle, 3741 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, said he and
colleagues still will preach a message of morality and encourage
abstinence as the best prevention. Although churches condemn adultery,
Metayer conceded that it is culturally acceptable among some Haitian


 ``We try to challenge people to stop, then bring them to the Lord,''
said Metayer, who lives in Plantation. ``People get this disease and
want to isolate themselves. If they're already infected they don't need
to be isolated. God forgives them and gives them a new chance to live.
 That message could hearten Mary de Rosiers of Florida City. The
39-year-old mother of three has turned her home into a self-imposed
prison since she was hospitalized near death in July. She stopped going
to church (``I don't need prayer because I'm dead already. Only my body
is here.'') and the only people she sees are her teenage son and
daughter. She refuses to let friends visit, or tell them
 about her condition. ``I don't want them to see me like this,'' she
said. Her son, Smette, 16, recently quit his extracurricular school
activities -- including the basketball team, which he had hoped would
help him win a college scholarship -- and has taken on all the household
responsibilities. De Rosiers was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, but went
into denial and continued to work seven days a week as a housekeeper at
a popular Islamorada lodge until last year. Now she and her two teenage
children barely get by on her nearly depleted savings. Vieux said de
Rosiers' shame and reclusiveness are not uncommon among Haitian
Americans. ``They think we'll put them out of the church. That's the
last thing we want to do.''