With an appearance on Vh1's Best Week Ever and as an Internet meme around the globe, a New Orleans billboard was one of 2009's favorite Web stars. In big, bold red letters near the Louisiana Superdome was the phrase, destined to be emailed, remailed and blogged to infinity:
"HIV... It's Time to Take Control of This GANGSTA!"
The names and faces of the gangbusting crew (dubbed the "HIV Prevention Mobsters" and written in a Godfather-style script) are displayed underneath, led by da Condom Godfather, with da Trich Terminator, da Crabs Assassin, da Chlamydia Crusher and da Herpes Hitwoman —among others.
The crew belongs to the St. John No. 5 Baptist Faith Church and Camp ACE HIV Program, a faith-based organization offering free condoms and frank, open discussions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases — and their phones rang off the hook once the billboard made headlines.
"We got calls, people saying, 'Can I speak to the mobsters?' And we start laughing," says executive director Tamachia Davenport. "'Which one are you? What's your name? Let me speak to da Gonorrhea Crusher.'"
Davenport also was surprised at the April 22 New Orleans City Council meeting, where the program directors, wearing bright red T-shirts, promoted the group's May 15 event, the second annual HIV Awareness Extravaganza. Councilmembers Arnie Fielkow and Cynthia Willard-Lewis showered the group with praise, commending them for their service. Davenport says she knew the council had her back, but she didn't expect councilmembers to know her name.
"St. John (No. 5) provides a wonderful program that is vitally important given the increase of HIV in New Orleans, especially in minority communities," City Council President Arnie Fielkow said in an email to Gambit. Fielkow also encourages people to take advantage of testing programs to protect themselves and their families.
"That's an advantage of being faith-based in this fight," Davenport says. "We've been the faith-based (organization) that provides the testing, provides the sessions, provides the events, the conversation, that distributes condoms. We're probably on the extreme end of the fight, but we've been seeing more faith-based (organizations) — whether it's churches, mosques, synagogues, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics — evolve in the fight we started 14 years ago."
St. John No. 5 started the Camp ACE (Alert Community Empowerment) social ministry program in 1989. Following the opening of a summer camp, the church started offering other programs, including an education department offering afterschool tutoring and GED prep.
Through that education program, Davenport says, the church saw the need to address HIV. Kids were talking about it, and some church members disclosed to pastor Bruce Davenport Sr. they had tested positive for the syndrome (he had come across some HIV-positive members of his flock while he was visiting others in the hospital). The pastor didn't understand why HIV-positive members weren't asking the church for help.
"They feared they'd be ostracized — exiled — from church," Tamachia says. "He decided the church itself needed to take a stand. The community as a whole was asking faith-based organizations to step up and deal with HIV."
That was 1996. Since then, the church has expanded its services to include HIV counseling, assistance with funeral and burial arrangements, outreach, free testing and STD pamphlets and community events with a focus on prevention, through what Tamachia calls "having a conversation with the people we're serving.
"Our congregation is a small one — 40-50 people on a good day," she says. "But we serve thousands of people. It doesn't matter who you worship, what you believe in, what you don't believe in."
According to a 2007-2008 report from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Office of Public Health HIV/AIDS Program (HAP), 28,676 people are living with HIV in Louisiana (and 8,674 live with AIDS) — of the estimated 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S. The state is ranked the fifth highest in the country per capita for HIV/AIDS cases, and the 11th highest for new diagnoses.
The HAP report says African-Americans account for 71.7 percent of new HIV diagnoses in the state. Another report from 2008, "People Living With HIV/AIDS," assessed the needs and services and found 30 percent of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Louisiana live in Orleans Parish (22 percent, the second highest percentage, live in East Baton Rouge). Of those surveyed, 60 percent are male, 30 percent female and 10 percent transgender.
Respondents said, however, while some insurance covers HIV/AIDS medication and care, they mostly couldn't afford that care, didn't qualify, didn't know where to get it, or were denied care. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed were unemployed — most of whom couldn't work for health reasons or were on disability, receiving between $500 and $1,000 a month and food stamps.
For those not getting help, they cited a lack of knowledge of available services and fear of others knowing their diagnosis. Most said they told others within a month of diagnosis; they said they would have done so sooner, but feared rejection and job loss, among other reasons. Others said they've lost friends, been kicked out of homes or fired from their jobs, or have been victims of violence or physical isolation. Free condoms and safe sex information, the survey found, are the most sought-out and used resources.
St. John No. 5 and Camp ACE realized this, and despite being a faith-based organization — where sex and its risks and talking about them frankly and openly may otherwise be taboo — the program knew to get out of "comfort zones" and help offer the services the surveys outline as desperately needed.
"We had a reality check," Tamachia says. "When we don't all talk about it, silence equals death. And we all understood that, and we've seen it firsthand, even in our own congregation.
"We had people talking to us, 'Hey, my son has syphilis,' or 'Hey, my daughter is not even 12 and she's had her first baby.' At what point do you say 'enough is enough'? We need to address this."
St. John No. 5 and Camp ACE stress spreading the word — creating a domino effect in the community by filling in the gaps left by schools, parents and family.
"I've had (people) of all levels of education, economic levels, talk to me, or I talk to them, and some stuff they didn't know," Tamachia says. "Once they know, they can teach family, friends or the community. I have parents who are parents to other kids in the community because they don't have parents. If I'm teaching them, they can teach the kids. And my elderly population, 60-plus, the cases are there too — when we're talking about Viagra and the increase in sex drive, we still have to talk to them about HIV. One of the things we stress: HIV does not discriminate."
Noel Twilbeck, executive director of the NO/AIDS Task Force, says St. John's program is a much-needed effort in the communities it serves. "They've done some very impressive and innovative awareness campaigns targeting communities that are very difficult to reach for prevention activities and counseling," Twilbeck says. NO/AIDS has offered HIV testing, prevention services, outreach and other HIV-related services for almost 30 years in New Orleans, and the organization has collaborated its outreach efforts with St. John's program for more than five years.
"With all the HIV prevention and care providers in the community, they have to work together," Twilbeck says. "It's not like we're competing for a small number of clients and we have too much capacity. We've got more than enough clients, more than enough people that need to know their HIV status than all other agencies together with finite resources can handle."
St. John also stresses abstinence, which Tamachia says could even mean abstaining from "whatever behavior or action that may lead to you put yourself at risk." But she knows it's not the end-all answer. Apart from education programs and testing, the church and Camp ACE host community events like the recent HIV Awareness Extravaganza. Hundreds showed up in Gentilly for a street fair emphasizing testing and education — but also featuring a classic car show and music by local rappers Partners-N-Crime. Police escorted a 50-car-long Ride for Life through the rain. "I felt like a million bucks," Tamachia says.
The program has received its share of angry phone calls for its atypical approach. "We still have a long way to go," Tamachia says. Though the majority of the response has been welcoming, other faith-based groups don't approve of the services, especially the free condoms and frank conversations about sex and drugs.
"We get those calls from time to time from the sign, like 'I didn't know Jesus Christ said it was OK to pass out condoms.' And we just laugh at it," Tamachia says. "We're OK. The majority of people support what we're doing."
Including the state. The HIV program is partially funded by the state's Office of Public Health's HAP, which, along with other statewide health care initiatives, faces budget cuts. But the program also receives aid from sponsors and donors and is able to stay afloat. "We're a church as well," Tamachia says, "so the community is expecting the church to do just about everything."
It's the billboard campaign that's been the main draw of criticism. Other signs have popped up since the debut of the HIV Prevention Mobsters — the billboards appear in New Orleans East, Carrollton and Gentilly, where a smaller Mobsters sign appears.
"Not to toot my horn, but I started the idea," Tamachia says. "And they're still talking about it, which is a good thing. Our creativity — whether you call it odd, strange or crazy — at least it has you talking about HIV and STDs."
And that's the point. Even critics or bloggers, quick to point out the absurd, are inadvertently raising their awareness of STDs.
"Some of the response to the mobsters is like, 'Cool!' and others are like, 'What the hell were they thinking?'," Tamachia says. "But we're all right with that."