HRC Blog

Breaking Walls of Silence: A Faith-Based Approach to HIV/AIDS

Pastor Joseph ToltonThe following post comes from Pastor Joseph Tolton, National Minister of Global Justice for The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, Director of The Global Justice Institute, and Managing Director of Blur Advertising:

I was overcome by fear, stunned with disbelief and terrified that somehow I would be next. The youth choir was rehearsing and our choir director was late. I had taken a run to the water fountain, and as I looked up there was Leslie tenuously entering the Church basement. We all had suspicions that Leslie was sick but no one wanted to believe it. Leslie was our favorite Choir Director: a handsome, energetic man with a magnetic personality. Leslie was the one I wanted to be the first love of my life. What I saw was unthinkable, undeniable and life changing. It was 1995 and Leslie was HIV positive.

In the summer of 1996, Leslie died alone and filled with shame. His funeral changed my life. The Church was filled with all 3000 seats occupied. The choirs sang as if this might be our last time singing. The Church rocked and swayed with joy, praise and celebration. Yet there was also a deafening silence as HIV/AIDS was never mentioned. The disconnect between his life among the sanctified and his sexual activity was never reconciled. The Church, his family and his friends were all complicit in a deadly game of silence.

It is this silence that haunted me for years after Leslie died. It inspires me to be an activist, and it compels me to be at this year’s International AIDS Conference. It is within the orbit of this silence that generations of sexual dysfunction live as the Black body yet reels from the vestiges of slavery and colonization.

Over the last year, I have spent extensive time in Uganda, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire doing research to unlock the cultural and psychological roadblocks to entertaining a more compassionate conversation about LGBT people in Africa. The learning was profoundly simple. Ugandans, Kenyans and Ivorians all stop speaking from a place of national identity when they discuss human sexuality; they effortlessly shift and speak as Africans. Their united voice echoes a strong sentiment: “homosexuality” as a topic and way of life is new terrain for Africans. Africans expressed to me a very real need for discerning and learning. Homosexuality as a behavior was understood to exist historically, but not as a mode of love that is integral to the life of a community. In order to bring LGBT Africans out of the shadows, it necessitates a conversation Africans have quietly shared with me.

The truth is that Africa must have a conversation about human sexuality not to better understand LGBT people but to better understand itself. African Americans are making great strides in moving toward inclusion but our motives must be scrutinized. Are we shifting because it is socially acceptable or because there is a groundswell to create a new sense of sexual self-understanding among Black Americans? Ultimately, this conversation about the politics, economics and social dynamics of human sexuality is meant to force Blacks everywhere to address the legacy of oppression lodged in the Black physical body and articulated in our sexual/romantic expressions and gender interactions.

The hope of this conversation is predicated on our faith, a belief and expectation that with spiritual intent, things change for the good of all involved. Belief systems are the tenets that inform our faith traditions. Faith however is the transcendent force that gives us hope in the face of hopelessness, drive when we are depleted, courage when we are afraid, and the capacity to break through generational walls of silence. Faith is the cure for HIV/AIDS living among us now.

I am humbled to be among the Faithful at this conference, those who believe that the power of life and death is in our tongue.

HRC is a proud co-sponsor of tonight’s gospel and inspirational concert, One Voice: Gospel Artists Respond to AIDS. Learn more about HRC’s involvement in the 19th International AIDS Conference at

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