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 enough progress that her group would feel comfortable opening up about their experiences.
Another woman slid silently into a pew in the back, the fourth and last member to arrive.
A reporter was in town, and the rest had a secret to keep.
If Byrth was being honest, she would tell you that she really doesn't want to be where she is. A big-city soul, she has trouble explaining why she lives in Dorchester, South Carolina, population 2,593.
"I'm pretty sure you can't get more rural than this."
Her mom is the reason she's here. Byrth spent part of her childhood in Dorchester before leaving to go to college. She wasn't planning on coming back. She eventually moved to Europe with her husband, Carl, and their five girls. But when her father died of lung cancer and her mother, Marie, had a stroke, Byrth returned to South Carolina in 2000 to take care of her.
At the time, Marie was the pastor of Bibleway Holiness Church. Marie told her daughter that she would have to take over -- to continue the work Marie had started. Byrth said no.
"I said, 'I'd give my life for you, but I can't do that,' " she remembers. "I saw how my mom had run herself into the ground. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to go on a cruise, take a vacation. Mom just said, 'You'll do it.' Turns out, she was right."
The way Byrth tells the story, it all started with a red clay road. If you know anything about red clay, you know it gets muddy fast. So when Dorchester's Marion Road got rained on, it literally washed away. That meant no school for the kids, no church services, no vehicles in or out.
That was a problem when an elderly resident died, and the ambulance couldn't reach him for three days because a thunderstorm had flooded the area.
"Some of the men in our community rolled up their pants legs, got the stretcher and went and got him, and brought him out to the end of the road."
Byrth was outraged.
She attended county council meetings every month for two years before the council finally agreed to pay to put asphalt on the road. Then she started hearing about other parishioners who were too old or sick to leave their houses. She began delivering food and clothing to people in a 40-mile radius of the church.
"My mom always said: Just standing around and looking doesn't help the problem, you've got to get involved," Byrth says with a sigh and a glance to the heavens. "Even when it's someone else's problem, it's your community, and you're a part of that community."
It was during a visit to the "sick and shut-in" that Byrth had her first encounter with AIDS in Dorchester.
It was 2009. A couple had moved to town, and Byrth heard through the grapevine that the husband was ill.
When she got to the house, the middle-aged man was lying on excrement-soiled sheets, struggling to take s