national organizations officially recognizing and speaking about AIDS, local congregations, denominational agencies, and individuals were validated in their existing compassionate ministries and approved to create ministries of education, care, and advocacy where none existed.
Clearly, local congregations are closest to people facing AIDS on a personal level. The response to the epidemic of religious groups at this level would appear to have the greatest impact, in terms of care and prevention. Activity at this level in certain locations "filtered up" during the early years of the epidemic to inform and help shape national statements and AIDS-related program commitments. It is equally reasonable to expect that time will be required for these proclamations and programs to "filter down." The relative slowness with which the process occurs in either direction dismays people who want a more vigorous and extensive compassionate response. In addition, congregations and agencies at local levels are free, according to the governing rules of many if not most groups, to set their own priorities and implement their own programs. Authorization at a national level does not necessarily result in activity at a local level. Still, the authoritative voice of major denominations, speaking clearly and at a national level, has presumably had a real effect on their local congregations. The remainder of this section summarizes, in alphabetical order, the official statements of some major U.S. religious groups and then offers some examples of local congregational activities.
African American churches and religious leaders are powerful influences in their communities. Hence, involvement of the clergy and their congregations would be important for HIV prevention and support services. Like other national religious bodies, these churches with exclusively or predominantly African American membership tended to be officially silent during the early years of the epidemic. African American religious congregations, however, appeared to give the epidemic lower priority than other urgent problems besetting their predominately urban communities, such as unemployment, crime, family disintegration, discrimination, and drugs (Lambert, 1989). Part of their reluctance to address the epidemic was explained by Angela Mitchell (1990:32):
AIDS is still considered by many to be a gay white man's disease, and most blacks with AIDS in this country are intravenous drug users (or their sex partners) and homosexuals—people whose existence many of us would rather deny. Moreover, if the black community were to embrace AIDS as our problem, we would all become associated with a disease many think is divine retribution for sexual immorality; a disease sufferers "bring on themselves" by "doing things they shouldn't have been doing anyway"; a disease of the