Pastor fights HIV stigma in rural town

Story highlights

  • HIV/AIDS is a big problem in the rural South, where treatment and resources can be lacking
  • Pastor Brenda Byrth says helping people with basic needs is the first priority
  • Byrth works to spread awareness and education about HIV/AIDS in her community
The fan by the window pushed humid air uselessly against the church pews.
Diana Martinez made small talk as Tommy Terry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The man sitting next to Martinez cracked a joke. Nobody laughed.
A clock on the back wall ticked minutes away in a mocking cliché.
Only three people had shown up for this month's HIV/AIDS awareness meeting. Usually, there are 10 to 12 -- a surprisingly good turnout for a congregation of 25, which just goes to show how many people the disease affects in this small Southern town.
It's a problem all across the Bible Belt. In 2007 -- the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the rate of diagnosed AIDS cases in the Southeastern United States was much higher than in other regions of the country: 9.2 per 100,000 people, versus 2.5 in the Midwest, 3.9 in the West and 5.6 in the Northeast.
Rural areas like this have it particularly bad. The CDC reports that while HIV diagnoses have slowly decreased in metropolitan areas since 1985, rural areas are still showing an increase because of stigma, poor education and a lack of funding.
Standing at the front of the Bibleway Holiness Church, Pastor Brenda Byrth kept a close eye on the door. She had hoped she'd made