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AIDS among Hispanics: A major crisis in a minority community that’s unaware

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PLANTATION, Fla. (BP)–While Hispanics make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 16 percent of the nearly 1 million AIDS cases diagnosed in the nation since the beginning of the epidemic, according to a factsheet released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The factsheet also said that in 2005, more than 78,000 Hispanics living with AIDS accounted for 19 percent of all people still living with AIDS in the United States.

Research shows that behavioral risk factors for HIV infection differ by country of birth and that Hispanics born in Puerto Rico are more likely than other Hispanics to contract HIV as a result of injection drug use and high-risk heterosexual contact.

By contrast, men having sexual contact with other men is the primary cause of HIV infections among Hispanics born in Central or South America, Cuba, Mexico or the United States.

These statistics come as a surprise to many Baptists who are Hispanic. When David Galvan, the pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Nueva Vida in Garland, Texas, reviewed the CDC’s factsheet, he expressed shock.

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“The truth is that the stats are alarming,” Galvan said. “I had no idea that that would be the case in the Hispanic community.”

David Lema, associate director for the department of theological education with the Florida Baptist Convention, explained that among Hispanic churches, AIDS is linked to homosexuality — a subject he said is taboo.

“For the most part, at least in the evangelical Hispanic population, there is a certain aversion to the topic of AIDS,” Lema said. “Families are not exactly thrilled to put this on the prayer listing for Wednesday evening.”

Despite potential objections or taboos, Elsa Orlandini, a lay member of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispania, a Southern Baptist congregation in Plantation, Fla., is setting an example by sharing the love of Jesus Christ through ministry to those in the Hispanic community afflicted with HIV and AIDS.

In 1996, under the leadership of Pastor Herberto Becerra, the church became part of Proyecto Ayuda, SIDA: Arriesgue Amor y Compasion — or Project Help AIDS: Daring Love and Compassion — an initiative of Union Femenil Misionera, known in English as Woman’s Missionary Union.

Orlandini, a 57-year-old native of Argentina who has been living in the United States for 13 years, has been a leader in the ministry since her church first became involved.

“[We] follow the example of Jesus, who never ignored the human needs and always ministered to those set aside by the community and the ones with broken hearts,” Orlandini told Baptist Press through an interpreter.

Orlandini and other church volunteers minister to people with HIV and AIDS in a number of ways. They have assisted with transportation to therapy sessions, helped pay rent, electric bills and water bills, and provided food baskets and gift certificates for food, all with a goal of showing compassion. On many occasions, they’ve had opportunities to share the Gospel.

“We call them on the phone, visit their homes, have lunch together, celebrate their birthdays, visit them in the hospitals, pray, and we hope [they experience] salvation in Jesus,” Orlandini said.

The response from people with AIDS has been positive.

“They are happy with our support and say, ‘How good that you hug us and touch us and don’t wear gloves. You visit us in our home, you eat and drink with our utensils,'” she said. “We have shown them God’s love in very practical ways.”

Those who benefit from Proyecto Ayuda, SIDA often attend church and hear messages from Becerra, the pastor. Orlandini and the other ministry volunteers try to respect their privacy by not drawing attention to their condition, she said.

Involvement in the AIDS outreach has drawn Orlandini into a county-wide educational effort through Hispanic Unity of Florida, Inc., which she described as a non-profit, public service organization serving the Hispanic community and other minorities in Broward County.

In partnership with Florida International University and the Red Cross, they are coordinating Alcanzar 2010 (Reach 2010) to help eradicate illnesses including HIV/AIDS in the minority communities of Broward County.

“As participants in this training, we become the trainers and we will conduct presentations in the community with the objective of prevention and education on AIDS,” Orlandini said.

Orlandini hopes that other Baptists will overcome their concerns and cultural taboos and realize that ministering to the growing AIDS population in the Hispanic community helps fulfill the Great Commission.

“Nobody likes to speak about this subject, but ignoring it does not make the problem go away,” Orlandini said. “Therefore I ask myself this question: ‘What can I do?’ And I go a bit further by asking, ‘What can my church do?’ “Let’s remember a phrase that someone said: ‘You can’t change the entire world, but you can change the world of someone, someplace.’ My church as well as my friends and I, we can make a difference.”
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Brent Thompson is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.