HRC Foundation is excited to work with RAHMA and its many partners as they spearhead the inaugural National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day. The goal is to rally all U.S. communities representative of different faiths to take a stand against stigma in their congregations and raise awareness on HIV and AIDS.

HRC sat down with Shawn P. Torres, Jr., M.Div., Associate Minister, First Nazareth Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., to discuss the need to address HIV in his community and congregation.

How has faith played a role in your life?

Faith has been an integral part of who I am as a person. Growing up in the Black church, I learned the basic tenets of our faith tradition being that of faith, hope, and love. These core values of Christians doctrine have been the foundation of my work as a pastor and a seeker of justice and inclusion. It is because of my faith upbringing that I decided to go to and get through seminary. I witnessed some things, as a parishioner, that I wasn’t comfortable reproducing as a faith leader, and seminary was that tool I needed to be able to be effective in my life's work.

Places of worship have a role in addressing HIV. What ways have you seen that happen?

Places of worship have been vocal in the fight against HIV. Most recently, a well-known pastor and psalmist made comments that AIDS is punishment for a sinful lifestyle, contrary to the way of righteousness and holiness. These claims aren’t new, and follow the irresponsible theological jargon of well-known evangelical preachers who have been using God’s word as a weapon against people who are LGBTQ and people who are living with HIV. Churches across the country, including a popular church in Harlem, even brandish signage condemning those of us who live and battle with HIV on a daily basis.

However, there are churches that have found a way to respond to the epidemic justly and with  sensitivity. My former and current churches have ministries that speak to the epidemic and  partner with AIDS service organizations within the community to serve those living with HIV and AIDS. During the holidays, they adopt children whose parents are incarcerated, or are living with, or have passed from the complications HIV and AIDS. These faith-based organizations host HIV testing events and honor days including National HIV Awareness Days. When we think of what righteousness and justice actually mean, we see that some faith organizations truly answer to the call to be righteous and justice-centered.

What advice would you give others who are attempting to address HIV in a faith setting?

When trying to address HIV in faith spaces, the religious/faith space must first deal with where it has been complacent and complicit. These religious spaces must also deal with where they have been wielding homophobic, transphobic and anti-Black theologies, and apologize for it as well.

How will you observe National Faith and HIV & AIDS Awareness Day on August 27?

I have a t-shirt that says “HIV LIVES Matter” that originated from the heart of a brother named Linton Walker from Charlotte, N.C. I will be rocking that shirt to church on Sunday.

As a person within the LGBTQ community and of faith, what is one of the core values you believe the faith community need to address HIV?

As a LGBTQ person of faith, I truly believe that one of the core values the church needs in order to address HIV, is reimagining what love actually looks like outside of the context of Christianity or Christian spaces. A friend of mine challenges me often to imagine what the work we do for church on Sunday can look like on a Tuesday or a Thursday. In other words, our practice of this core value of love must be translated into other spaces. It is in the sharing of love in and to the world, which was the essential work of Christ, that can transform how we view and treat other people. How we re-imagine and re-train our minds around this idea of love will also re-shape our capacity to hold and extend that love to others. In that re-imagining, homophobia and the abomination narratives can no longer thrive.

To learn more about National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, visit www.faithaidsday.com.

To learn more about the Human RIghts Campaign's work on these issues, visit www.hrc.org.

Shawn Torres is a Philadelphia native who graduated from The Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson in 2009. He moved to Columbia, S.C., to study at Benedict College, where he earned a B.S. in Child & Family Development in 2013. Shawn received his Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2017.


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