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Maki Somosot the Times-Picayune
Published: 10 August 2012

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Sitting in his suede upholstered throne, Bruce Davenport preaches about a topic that might be considered too hot to talk about in church. On this particular day, Davenport, pastor of St. John No. 5 Faith Church, is holding forth on the subject of condoms -- the glow-in-the-dark kind.

At Davenport's nondenominational church, at 3829 Hamburg St. in Gentilly, members are urged to use condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, HIV infection and unwanted pregnancies. And while the NAACP this summer introduced a manual to help black pastors broach the HIV/AIDS topic in their churches, Davenport has been on the attack for years -- since the worst of the AIDS epidemic hit the nation in the mid-1990s.

Sporting casual khaki pants, scuffed black Vans and a burnished salt-and-pepper goatee, Davenport is affectionately known as ``Da Condom Father'' in his church. A certified HIV counselor, he has waged an aggressive crusade from his pulpit against sexually transmitted diseases.

When he talks about the toll HIV has taken on his congregation and his city, his perpetually furrowed brow deepens further.

``If I lose one, I lose one too many,'' Davenport said in a soft-spoken but steely voice, sounding like someone who has found his cause. His daughter, Tamachia Davenport, has helped him shape his campaign, which includes HIV testing at the church and handing out informational pamphlets door-to-door in neighborhoods hard-hit by the disease.

``We needed to do something beyond prayer and burial,'' the pastor's daughter said.

To help spread the safe-sex message, the pastor, his daughter and other members of his congregation in 2009 dressed up like mobsters for a billboard that attracted local notoriety and national attention. In bold red letters, the billboard in downtown New Orleans read ``HIV...It's Time to Take Control of this GANGSTA.'' The ``HIV Prevention Mobsters'' gang featured ``da Chlamydia Crusher,'' ``da Herpes Hitwoman,'' ``da Gonorrhea Breaker,'' ``da Trich Terminator'' and ``da Syphilis Eliminator.''

The church's pioneering campaign kicked off in 1996, supported by various in-kind and church donations. Then, bolstered by additional aid from the Ford Foundation and the state Office of Public Health, St. John No. 5 started adding free HIV testing, condom distribution and sexual health workshops to their social ministry program, Camp ACE. Church members began conducting HIV testing every day of the week, which includes initial diagnostic and follow-up tests.

Despite its small staff, the church offers testing services Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thousands of people from all over the New Orleans area come every year, and there's an occasional visitor from Kenner or Chalmette. Typically, about 15 people come in to be tested each week, but Davenport said the number can go as high as 30.

Post-Katrina, St. John No. 5 was one of the first churches to build a temporary shelter for homeless people living with HIV.

These days, the church's members are invited to conduct sexual-health workshops and discussions at schools, colleges and churches as part of an educational push to combat the deep-rooted stigma still haunting people living with HIV/AIDS in the black community.

African-Americans in Louisiana continue to be disproportionately at risk for HIV and AIDS, reflecting a national trend documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although African-Americans make up only 32 percent of Louisiana's overall population, they comprise 73 percent of the newest HIV cases and 76 percent of AIDS cases, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

African-Americans living in metropolitan areas like New Orleans and Baton Rouge also tend to contract HIV more than those in suburban or rural settings, the figures show.

Because the community it serves is predominantly black, St. John No. 5's rate of testing African-Americans in 2011 was significantly higher than the statewide average, Tamachia Davenport said.

While 89 percent of the church's first-time testees were African-American, the church serves people of all races and walks of life. And to address the escalating HIV infection rates in the local Hispanic population, the church has begun translating its educational materials into Spanish and recruiting bilingual volunteers.

Every afternoon, the St. John (hash)5 staff, dressed in unmistakable red shirts and khaki pants, go from door to door in neighborhoods afflicted with the worst HIV rates in the city. The group also treks to barber shops, convenience stores, pharmacies, even venturing into bars, clubs and strip joints, often in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

They come armed with multicolored, multi-use and many-flavored condoms, along with dozens of HIV and STD pamphlets to hand out to neighbors who are often willing to open their doors.

``When people see us, they know it's the condom people, not the insurance people,'' Tamachia Davenport said. ``They know we're coming around to give them goodies.''

While they have tested subjects ranging in age from 3 to 80, the church recognizes that more teenagers need to be tested. According to Davenport, teenagers are both the most sexually active group and the one that is the most misinformed about HIV.

``Kids still think that HIV is transmitted through saliva but that you can't get it through oral sex. They think that you're still a virgin even if you're having anal sex,'' she said.

According to the CDC, HIV primarily spreads through exchanging bodily fluids during unprotected sex or sharing dirty needles and syringes. It can be contracted through various forms of sex, although the risk is highest with anal sex. Having multiple partners or being born to an HIV-positive mother can also result in an HIV diagnosis.

Left untreated, HIV can progress in a few years to AIDS, leaving the body's immune system powerless to fight off opportunistic diseases and certain cancers.

Latanya Killingworth, 36, discovered she was HIV-positive around 1997. She credits St. John No. 5 with helping her rebuild her self-esteem and confidence. ``I never thought in a million years that I could speak out and tell my story,'' Killingworth said. ``I feel that if I can prevent anyone -- whether young or old -- my job here on earth is done.''

Stephen Finley, professor of African-American religion at LSU, calls St. John No. 5 ``cutting-edge'' and ``courageous'' in its approach to HIV and sexuality. Although Finley said other churches have engaged in similar advocacy, few can navigate the thorny issues typically associated with HIV in the black community.

In 2010, St. John No. 5 spearheaded Faith in Action, a multi-faith network of nine other churches and a mosque dedicated to raising awareness and prevention of HIV in Louisiana.

Bishop Joyce Turner Keller, founder of the faith-based community service organization Aspirations in Baton Rouge, is a member of Faith In Action. Having lived with HIV since 2001, she said it is her role as a member of the clergy to ``address the HIV pandemic in the black community when other members of the clergy are not speaking out.''

Willie Muhammad, student minister of the member Mosque No. 46, also feels that his vocation complements his obligation to ``find a solution'' to social ills like HIV in his community.

But these outspoken religious authorities are few and far in between. Tamachia Davenport is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of ``coordination, cooperation and consistency'' among faith-based organizations when it comes to dealing with HIV.

Her father stubbornly holds onto his primary conviction: ``How can you not help when as a church you're supposed to help?''

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