HIV/AIDS at 30: Edwin Sanders Ministers to “Whosoever They May Be”

The Memphis pastor's congregation has been among the leaders in moving the black church from a problem to an asset in the fight against HIV.

By LaShieka Purvis Hunter Mar 28, 2011

A version of this article originally appeared in the Black AIDS Institute’s Black AIDS Weekly e-mail. Colorlines joins other black community media in co-publishing content from the Black AIDS weekly. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first U.S. reports of what would be known as HIV. Throughout the year, will both highlight future challenges and profile people who are finding solutions.

About a mile away from Nashville, Tenn.’s Metropolitan Interdenominational Church stands the First Response Center, a primary care clinic that provides HIV/AIDS testing, treatment, prevention services and education. Part of the 350-member church’s outreach program, the health center is the brainchild of the Rev. Edwin Sanders and his fellow founding members. Since its inception, it has become a pillar of the predominantly black community in which it’s located, and an essential resource for folks who are not able to obtain such services anywhere else.

Sanders and his congregation have been proudly active in the fight against HIV/AIDS for more than 26 years, shortly after one of the founding 12 members of the church died from AIDS. "We certainly realized early on that this was not a gay white male disease, and people in our community were not treating it as though it was something we needed to be aware of and addressing," recalls Sanders. "So we began to do education in our community. That eventually evolved into prevention work and then to us providing direct services. Now we’ve evolved to the point where we have the clinic."

The church’s outreach–which provides HIV/AIDS patients with transportation to appointments, delivers prevention information to young adults, makes condoms available and at one time ran a syringe-exchange program–is distinctive. Sanders doesn’t know of any other African American congregation operating an HIV/AIDS primary care clinic.

"There are other congregations with primary care clinics that do other things, but ours is exclusively focused on HIV/AIDS," he explains. "We were really fortunate to get a planning grant from the URSA Institute about 10 years ago, and have a fully operating clinic four years after that. Now we are able to serve a population in our community that represents those who are truly disenfranchised."

The church is in the process of "building out” the clinic so that case management, outreach and counseling group sessions can all be in one building. The clinic also serves everyone–people who are mentally ill, suffering from addiction, underprivileged or have no means of getting to appointments. "We serve the people who fall through the safety net," Sanders says.

While many churches shy away from having an open dialogue about such topics as HIV/AIDS and homosexuality because of their stigma, Metropolitan Interdenominational Church tackles the issues head on. Avoidance and exclusivity are not on the agenda. "Because we have always been pretty forthright in challenging norms and traditions, we’ve always been under the spotlight in the ways we’ve been welcoming and inclusive and reconciling of all people," Sanders says.

But the black church’s early reluctance to deal with HIV/AIDS has been turning around. "When we first started doing HIV/AIDS work, we were the lone rangers without any other congregations working collaboratively and cooperatively with us," he admits. "But over time, we’ve seen more and more open-mindedness and participation on various levels. There has been a shift in theological perspective regarding gay, lesbian and transgender people. We have gained the respect of most all of the faith communities."

The church also demonstrates leadership in HIV/AIDS medical research. The Legacy Project, a collaboration with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which Sanders chairs, increases involvement of African Americans and Latinos in vaccine trials.

"Historically, there’s been a distrust of clinical research because of what some believe has been the exploitation and abuse of people of color," Sanders says. "But we’re working very hard to get people to overcome this because it is very important to have African Americans involved in these trials so that when a vaccine is developed, it’s effective for all of us."

"There is a theme at the center of everything we do: the word ‘whosoever,’ " says Sanders. "We emphasize that there are no exceptions, and we believe that irrespective of any aspects of any person who comes to our door, we must always be welcoming and inclusive–whosoever they might be."