Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- A national movement is coming to local churches. With New Orleans and Baton Rouge having some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS, religious leaders in the African-American community are getting involved.

'Based on where we live, HIV and AIDS disproportionately affects the African-American community,' said a registered nurse, speaking in front of about three dozen ministers and pastors.

She gave the HIV facts to at a New Orleans training session with the local branch of the NAACP. The session is a project of the national NAACP.

It's purpose is to prevent the spread of the virus through education. They say it needs to start with open and honest conversation in one of the strongest organizations in the black community, church.

'Even though on a Sunday morning the members may be dressed up and looking very great, there are members sitting out in those pews that are infected. There are members out there that have risky lifestyles. There are members out there that need the resources,' said Danatus King, president of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP.

They came to the workshop from churches all over Southeast Louisiana.

'People are in denial about what's really there. And the black community has a high percentage of HIV/AIDS. That's one thing we can't deny,' said Rev. Darryl K. Smith, the assistant pastor of Plymouth Rock Missionary Baptist Church.

'We talk about cancer. We talk about diabetes. We talk about, you know, different kind of sickness, but we never talk about HIV. It's time to bring it back to St. Bernard Parish, to let the people know HIV is real. It's killing our people,' said Rev. Kevin Gabriel, president of the St. Bernard branch of the NAACP and associate minister at the First Baptist Church.

They are aware that some people may feel it's unnatural in church to talk about an illness spread sexually and by sharing needles used for illegal drug use, but actually they say they can't think of any better place to reach people.

Some, in a Baton Rouge congregation, have already had open testimonials.

'She started crying. And I'm sitting there and I said, 'Lord what do I do?' And God said, 'Go hug her.' So I hugged her and that started our whole HIV ministry,' said Rev. Herman Kelly of the Bethel AME Church in East Baton Rouge Parish. He said his church was among the first to have an HIV ministry, which started in 2002.

Church, these ministers say, is like a hospital. It's the place you go to be healed.

'It's a matter of life and death. It's that basic,' stated King.

For more on the training for this program call the New Orleans NAACP office at: 504-821-3221 or go to the national website here.

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