LEAD STORY: by Andy Butcher
Black Churches' AIDS Awareness Group Criticized for Gay Appointee
Copyright Charisma Magazine

February 21, 2002
Selection 'offensive' to traditional congregations, ministry leader says

An organization that promotes AIDS awareness in African American churches has come under fire for appointing an openly gay man as the director of its faith-based program.

Darryl L. Foster, an Atlanta pastor and leader of a ministry to homosexuals, said that while Balm in Gilead (BiG) described its role as encouraging "healing through prayer, education and advocacy," it was actually "poison for black churches."

Foster spoke out after Maurice O'Brian Franklin told "The Washington Blade," the capital's gay weekly, that his selection to head BiG's Faith-Based National HIV/AIDS Technical Assistance Center was "a statement."

Franklin said: "I feel like this organization has embraced me completely, based on the professional skills and expertise I bring to the job. On the other hand, it also is making a statement that black gay people are part of the black community and have valuable skills the community can use."

Foster said the appointment was "offensive" to traditional churches that had in the past supported BiG's HIV/AIDS prevention efforts among the black community -- where, BiG says, AIDS has reached "a national health stage of emergency." Among the 17 religious groups listed at BiG's Web site as endorsing its work are the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the National Baptist Convention (NBC), USA and T.D. Jakes Ministries.

Foster said that Franklin's appointment sent a message to churches that they should begin accepting open homosexuals. "[It] smacks of the new tolerance ethic espoused by the flesh-led thinkers of society," he said. Although BiG presented itself as a healer, "it is actually injecting poison into the church's veins, " he said.

Announcing Franklin's new post last month, BiG said that prior to joining the organization he had been director of the Gay Men of African Descent's Northeast Regional Capacity Building Assistance Program.

BiG founder and chief executive Pernessa C. Seele told Charisma News Service that Franklin "was not hired on the basis of his sexual preferences, but for the professional skills he brings to this organization." BiG has a "diverse" staff, all of whom had been appointed for their professional skills.

The criticism comes as BiG prepares for its 13th annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS on March 3 to 9. During the week, participating churches are due to host AIDS workshops, distribute AIDS-awareness information and devote sermons to the subject.

Writing at BiG's Web site, Seele said that the annual focus was the largest AIDS-awareness program targeting the African American community, reaching an estimated 2.5 million church members. Since BiG was formed, the week has mobilized more than 10,000 churches to provide AIDS education to their congregations and communities.

Last month, the New York City-based organization hosted the first African Diaspora HIV/AIDS Summit, attended by religious leaders from the United States, the Caribbean and Africa, which saw the launch of a drive to help churches spread AIDS awareness in the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

A spokesman for Bishop T.D. Jakes said that his ministry had not had any contact with BiG since 1999. Representatives of AME Zion, COGIC and the NBC, USA did not return phone calls.