For Reverend DeWayne Davis, a pastor at All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church, combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic is personal.
Davis grew up in Sunflower County, one of Mississippi’s poorest jurisdictions, and became sexually active at 14 – years before receiving safe sex support.
He believes that belonging to two marginalized communities didn’t help; “Unlike many of my [non-African American and non-LGBQT] peers I didn’t have a whole safe sex support network,” Davis says. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that he had advantages that some youth don’t: health insurance and “a family that embraced me despite my sexuality.”
Davis did not contract HIV, and when he reflects on his years in Sunflower County, he’s overcome with gratitude. “There but for the grace of God, go I” is his mantra.
In the United States, men who have sex with men (MSM) -- like Davis -- represent two percent of the U.S. population. Yet they account for three-fourths of all new HIV infections. Among MSM, black/African Americans are contracting HIV nearly as often as whites, despite their smaller population size.
In fact the CDC estimates that one in two African American MSM will acquire HIV in their lifetime unless we change the dynamic of the epidemic.
Just as troubling, those who contract HIV are often not getting help. In Hennepin County, for instance, 36 percent of people with HIV don’t receive medical care.
Davis was inspired to become an HIV activist after he learned about stats like these. "Those rates,” he says, “are absolutely confounding and horrifying.”
In the United States, men who have sex with men (MSM) represent two percent of the U.S. population. Yet they account for three-fourths of all new HIV infections. Among MSM, black/African Americans are contracting HIV nearly as often as whites, despite their smaller population size. In fact the CDC estimates that one in two African American MSM will acquire HIV in their lifetime unless we change the dynamic of the epidemic.
After high school, Davis moved to Washington D.C. to attend college and later launched a career as a congressional aid – focused on federal HIV/AIDS funding.
In 2013, Davis returned to his ministry roots as pastor at All God’s Children in Minneapolis. His church is committed to combating HIV/AIDS in Hennepin County.
For instance, the Aliveness Project conducts free rapid HIV testing at the church twice per month. The church also offers on-site support groups that provide people a safe place to talk about HIV and it advocates for the Red Ribbon Ride (a charity bike event that raises money for eight local HIV/AIDS support agencies). Additionally, Davis and others in his congregation are members of Hennepin County’s HIV Strategists Group, a body that’s articulating Hennepin’s 2016 HIV-free strategy.
Hennepin’s HIV-free strategy is closely modeled after the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Its three goals are to decrease new HIV infections, ensure that people living with HIV have access to care (and stay connected to care), and engage and empower communities (like MSM and black/African Americans) that are disproportionately affected by HIV.
Here are a four ways that Hennepin will try to meet these goals:
1. Create more opportunities for people to receive routine HIV testing.
3. Improve access to services that meet the basic needs of people living with HIV, like transportation, housing, food, and health insurance. (This will reduce the barriers that HIV positive people face when trying to adhere to a medical care plan.)
4. Partner with community entities that have many members who are disproportionately affected by HIV. (This will allow Hennepin to deliver HIV services and information to people in an environment that they frequent.)
The HIV-free strategy is ambitious; in Hennepin County about 160 residents are diagnosed HIV positive annually, an incidence rate that hasn’t budged in 18 years. However, thanks to powerful biomedical advances like pre-exposure prophylaxis, post-exposure prophylaxis, and anti-retroviral treatment, officials are optimistic.
“We’re at a place where we really feel like we have the tools to end the HIV epidemic,” says Jonathan Hanft, who coordinates Hennepin County’s Ryan White Program. The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiative, provides HIV care and treatment to more than 512,000 Americans each year.
Since fifty-five percent of HIV positive Minnesotan’s live in Hennepin – and since Red Door, the state’s largest HIV/STD testing clinic, is in Hennepin – Hanft believes that the county has a unique opportunity to impact the state’s HIV epidemic.
But, to be successful, there will need to be a coordinated community-wide effort with people like Davis and entities like All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church.
Recently, Davis recalled a 15-year-old transgender youth he met at a juvenile detention center. The youth had grown up without a safe sex support network and had been sexually exploited by older men.
“I’m working to create such a broad network of people, that a man like that can’t help but look around and see the support,” Davis says. “Someone like that should never fall through the cracks.”
Written by: Lori Imsdahl