Written by Gregg Brekke
Failing to understand why people were letting other people suffer and die alone, Pernessa Seele stepped out into the neighborhoods of Harlem 22 years ago on a mission to educate the masses about HIV/AIDS.
"We just went out and started knocking on doors," says Seele. "And when I say 'we,' I mean me and the Lord."
Seele – founder and CEO of the Balm In Gilead, Inc., a Richmond, Va.-based health advocacy group – spoke at a press conference March 8 in the Amistad Chapel of the UCC's national headquarters in Cleveland, where the church announced the online release of "Affirming Persons, Saving Lives" (APSL), its faith-based, comprehensive HIV-prevention curriculum, as a free digital download.
The announcement coincided with the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS (March 6-12) – the inclusive expansion of the highly successful Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which observed its 20-year anniversary in 2009.
"Because of prayer, we've gone from 11 pills a day to one pill a day," said Seele. "Because of prayer, people are living longer. Because of prayer, we are educating people like never before."
Prior to the national mobilization effort of the past two years, Seele said more than 30,000 churches had become involved on regional levels in some type of HIV/AIDS education work. Release of APSL as a free digital download adds welcome momentum, she said. "This is not just another document to sit on the shelf."
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, hailed APSL as a "breakthrough curriculum."
"This is an alternative response to a culture that, in many ways, devalues life, generates personal self-hatred and social alienation, and encourages indifference and denial of the threat that HIV poses in the community," said Black. "We are grateful to the Balm in Gilead and Pernessa for their inspirational vision and steadfast leadership that they bring to the nation in the education of HIV/AIDS.'
In December 2008, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, reported 4,176 persons living with HIV, with the epidemic growing – especially among young people and disproportionately among people of color.
"Education is a vital component of stopping HIV and caring for those affected," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, executive director of UCAN, the UCC HIV and AIDS Network, which provided significant support to APSL. "During this week when faith communities around the country are praying for the healing of AIDS, we want to share information and a very practical resource that people can use to help stop this epidemic now."
The nine-volume curriculum deals forthrightly with myriad complex issues critical to saving lives. Designed for multicultural Christian education settings, the resource can be adapted for use by health and human-service institutions, schools, health departments and community-based organizations.
The complete curricula was released as free digital downloads March 8 including The Introduction to the Learning Series, The Intergenerational Learning Series, The Adult Learning Series, The Parents Learning Series, The Youth Learning Series, Learning Series books covering Grades 5-6, Grades 3-4, Grades 1-2; and the Preschool and Kindergarten Learning Series.