More than half of people diagnosed with HIV in the south are African American. The Mississippi Delta is home to some of the highest infection rates in the state -- and the country. There is still a lot of stigma around having HIV and AIDS here, but -- as MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports -- some of them are finding support in what may seem at first like a surprising location.
Dorothy Davis remembers getting the call that would change her life.
“Well, I was called down at the Washington County Health Department and I had to have a blood test,” Davis said. “So when I went back, she read my test off and said that somebody had turned me in…and said that they had tested positive, so now I was positive for HIV in 1990.”
Davis had a 9-year-old daughter and feared the HIV would progress to AIDS. By 1992, the virus the second leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The stigma was isolating. Davis said even her own doctor was afraid of her.
“Back in the time when they really want to put on gloves…[they didn’t] want to touch you for this, and touch you for that…I had one doctor who took me to another place to get examined...and I’m like okay, it was time to change doctors,” Davis said. “Because I didn't feel like I needed him — I’m already scared now I don’t need him making me [more scared].}
Davis said her family was supportive, but still, she felt alone and scared. There weren't many resources or support systems in the Mississippi Delta.
She took charge of her health and today, she’s a grandmother working to spread HIV awareness.
“It has been a long, long road. I thought I was gonna die tomorrow when I got tested, Davis said. "But no, I didn’t."
Advances in medication have made it more manageable to live with HIV, especially if it’s caught and treated in its earliest stages.
But it hasn’t gone away.
Emory University tracks infection rates on an interactive map called AIDSVu. In 2016, about 9500 Mississippians had HIV and 73 percent of them were black.
In the Delta - where infection rates are high and access to clinics is limited, some give presentations about the disease at an unexpected place...church.
It’s a late Sunday morning at Greenville’s Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church.
Davis isn’t teaching this morning. She’s singing and clapping from a pew.
Mount Carmel is not Davis’s home church, but it is one where she knows the people well. Pastor Morris McCaskill and his wife Cheryl are on the front lines of HIV education in their community.
“If you love God, you gotta love people,” Pastor McCaskill said. “Everybody should be accepted… and in the seminars, we teach them that you can't contract anything by just touching and all of that.”
“Most people just don't want to open it up to know,” Cheryl McCaskill adds. “They say ‘Well, we keep it secret or we keep it hidden and da-da-da…then we won't have to be involved.’ But it’s still out there.”
According to David Miller, a Case Western Reserve University professor who studies black men’s health, historically, churches have ignored or shunned people with HIV because they assume it was contracted through drug usage or same-sex relationships.
“The reaction was kind of twofold,” Miller said of the first church reactions. “One, it wasn't talked about. But two -- there was a shunning of the church members, the gay members, particularly the gay males. There was a shunning of those males by church folk.”
But historically, the church also was a place for social justice issues.
"The church was also a very strong place for the civil rights movement. People came in and not only did they receive a message regarding liberation and power and forgiveness, but they also learned how to organize," Miller said. "The church was that one institution where the janitor and the doctor in the community in the segregated community could come together."
But times are changing. Cedric Sturdevant sits in a room at the Greenville office of the AIDS Services Coalition.
“I think the church is coming around, and they know that this is something that is affecting our community, the black community, so they really have to open up,” Sturdevant said.
Sturdevant was diagnosed with HIV 14 years ago. After not getting treatment, his HIV developed into AIDS. Currently, he is a community health advocate for people in the Delta and across the state.
“We’ve had the opportunity to present at one church in Greenville, twice. I've talked with other pastors about getting into their church and doing presentations.”
While some in the Delta are working one church a time, there is a national conversation going on as well. The NAACP has an outreach project called The Black Church and HIV, which works with church leadership to teach their congregations about the disease and how it affects the black community.
Pastor Will Francis works with the project and says some churches are starting to look at HIV as a social justice issue.
“We found that once we went into a city, especially in the Southeast, which is where we were focused, that HIV rates also overlap with unemployment, with poverty, access to care, lack of comprehensive sex education, or any sex education, within the school districts,” Francis said.
An NAACP survey showed 75 percent of African Americans find the church as very important, and Cheryl McCaskill of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church believes this makes black churches the perfect place for education and support around HIV and AIDS.
“Because we’re in the community, we ought to be concerned about the things that are going on in the community. And if we don't say anything, then it’s like you are agreeing that [it's] okay," McCaskill said. "We can't fool ourselves that things are not happening in our community, in our homes…in everywhere."
Dorothy Davis, who got her diagnosis almost thirty years ago, agrees.
"I believe that many people will come out when they know, that I’m not the only one in the Delta. You know, it's more people that can help me or get me help so that I can take care of myself.”
Almost 30 years ago, she thought her life was over. Now, she’s a grandmother, an HIV health educator, and - she hopes - an inspiration to others with HIV in the Mississippi Delta.