When Pernessa Seele organized Harlem's first Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS back in 1989, all she was trying to do was get a few traditionally African-American churches to acknowledge that the lives of many of their congregants had been devastated by HIV. "A lot of people don't understand about prayer," says Seele, who founded the group Balm in Gilead to disseminate accurate information about AIDS to black churches across the U.S. "They think it's all about healing. They don't understand that prayer opens the door. Once you say the prayer, you can't go back to being ignorant. You want to get educated."
Since then, her efforts have led to a national movement to address public-health issues through communities of faithan approach that is garnering Seele, 51, high-level notice. In January she was a guest of President and Mrs. Bush's at the State of the Union address, in which the President talked about the disproportionate toll that AIDS is taking on the African-American community. Black people, for example, account for 51% of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.
Seele is leading the fight to get those numbers down. Churches that Seele has worked with have developed AIDS ministries to visit the sick, address housing issues and educate teens and adults about safer sex. "Some pastors tell me, 'We're an abstinence-based church,'" Seele says. "And I say, 'Fine, but let's teach abstinence and not just preach abstinence.' You cannot tell people what's going on if they're not willing to be engaged."
Now Seele is expanding her campaign to include cervical cancer, which is usually caused by a sexually transmitted virus but can be detected early if women undergo routine Pap smears and are tested for a precancerous infection. Of course, cervical cancer doesn't carry the same stigma as AIDS, but you still need to talk about sex. And the way Seele sees it, church is as good a place as any to start having that conversation.