Historic Denton church promotes HIV/AIDS awareness


The Rev. Mason Rice Jr. and his wife, Zetta Rice.

JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

St. James African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, at 140 years old, is the oldest in Denton and third oldest in the state. And it is gaining notoriety for its groundbreaking efforts to increase HIV/AIDS awareness and education in the church.

According to Nita Thurman’s Freedman Town & St. James A.M.E. Church, freed slaves founded the church 11 years after slavery was abolished in the Freedman Town colony. The Rev. M.P. Lambert, one of the colony’s first residents, assumed the leadership role and met with parishioners in their homes every week for worship and Bible studies.

But as the region developed, congregants decided they needed their own church.

They built a chapel by themselves, hired a full-time preacher and officially organized into Saint James A.M.E. Church.

As Denton grew, the church did, too. The congregation has been witness to American history, having stood through the racial tensions of the civil rights era to the development of the Dallas/Fort Worth region. In 1985, the church was designated a Texas historical site.

Having weathered evictions, racial tension and a 1962 storm that destroyed the building and its records, church leaders are now taking on another crisis.

“There is an HIV epidemic among African-Americans for a variety of reasons.

They may get HIV through sharing dirty needles or from partners who may not disclose their status, for instance,” said Mary Taylor, a spokeswoman for the church.

It’s estimated there are 40,000 new cases of HIV a year. Young black men report around 50 percent of new cases, more than any other demographic. And young black men between ages 25 to 44 are more likely to die from AIDS than any other disease.
Unfortunately, many don’t even realize they have HIV until it is too late.

After one of his relatives died from AIDS-related complications, the Rev. Mason Rice, Jr., pastor of St. James, said he was compelled to act. Given the black church’s sway over the black community overall, Rice and Taylor saw an opportunity to address the alarming rate of HIV diagnoses. Historically the black church boasts captive audiences who come together and listen as a community.

But the church also has a problem.

“Churches have captive audiences but won’t talk about [HIV/AIDS],” Taylor said. “It’s a critical disease affecting our community, but it isn’t treated like other diseases. The church needs to be as compassionate as they are with other diseases.”

Data compiled by the Texas Department of State Health Services mirrors national the national data: People of color, and particularly young men of color, are most likely to contract HIV. Currently the state only estimates the rate of gay and bisexual men living with HIV or AIDS and does not track data based on gender identity.

It is estimated 80,073 Texans report living with HIV in 2014. Of those known cases, 37.3 percent, or 29,895, of black Texans report living with disease while 30.7 percent, or 24,607, of Hispanic Texans report living with HIV.

But the difference between contraction rates among genders is still stark. Black men comprise 32.9 percent of new diagnoses, while black women comprise 57.1 percent of all new diagnoses. Hispanic men account for 40 percent of new diagnoses while 26.1 percent of new diagnoses occur in Hispanic women.

Unfortunately, those numbers are likely much higher than statistics show, because of the stigma surrounding HIV, Taylor said.

“HIV transmission doesn’t occur just through sex but all forms of blood transmission, including birth,” Taylor said. “We need to stop discriminating against this disease.”

Despite friction in the national A.M.E. church over LGBT rights, St. James A.M.E.’s events do not discriminate. With a disproportionate number of people impacted by the disease, all events are open to the public, regardless of race, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, church officials stressed.

“It impacts everyone,” Taylor said. “Everyone needs education and to communicate about HIV.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2015.