Recently, Dr. Jennifer Stewart received a phone call from a young woman she worked with in Chicago years ago who had participated in one of Stewart’s HIV/AIDS youth programs as a teenager. Today, she’s working to bring HIV/AIDS awareness to her entire religious community. Dr. Stewart plans to cultivate that same interest and enthusiasm with a new program in Philadelphia.
Dr. Stewart, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Nursing, conducts research and programs in partnership with churches in Philadelphia. She’s currently working with several congregations to implement SISTER TO SISTER, a behavioral HIV prevention intervention for women.
Dr. Stewart’s own faith has shaped her career and community outreach, commenting: “I just feel that the church has historically had such a significant role in the lives of African Americans, myself included. It’s a vital resource in fighting HIV. Pastors have a heart for their congregations.” She says that when people become aware of HIV in their own community, it can engender in them a “call to action,” jumpstarting their own involvement in HIV awareness and education.
Dr. Stewart’s current research focuses on adapting and developing church-based programs focused on HIV prevention, testing promotion, and care and support of HIV infected individuals. With two different NIH grants, Dr. Stewart works with churches to develop individualized HIV prevention programs focused on testing and linking people who test positive to care. This approach requires conducting interviews with pastors, deacons, health ministers and other clergy to construct HIV/AIDS programs that respond to the specific needs of each congregation.
Jennifer’s greatest passion is working with youth in education. “Just hearing how their lives are going, knowing that they are safe sexually, and knowing that they are healthy and whole, is one of the most rewarding things for me.”
When asked what the most important step is for individuals in their own religious communities who want to bring HIV/AIDS awareness to the forefront?
“Break the silence”. Dr. Stewart stresses the importance of speaking with one’s pastor, even if they feel that it is a topic not everyone in the parish is ready to discuss. “Engaging your pastor and other people in your congregation is difficult, I understand that. But the dialogue is important, because this is a disease that is very real, that can happen to the person sitting next to you on the pew.”
Dr. Stewart is currently looking for participants and congregations to participate in studies focused on designing church-based HIV prevention and testing programs. Individuals will be compensated for their time. For information about how your congregation can collaborate on her projects, contact her at:
email@example.com or (773) 577-9902.