Approximately 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and that number continues to grow.
In his most recent State of the Union Address, President Trump said Arkansas is one of the leading states in the AIDS epidemic.
Most people who have the disease don’t know it, but community members in Northwest Arkansas are helping bring the issue to the front lines.
“My name is Reverend Mark Williams, and I’m a person living with HIV and Aids.”
Mark Williams is the pastor of Spirit of Peace Church in Fayetteville. In 2002, he was diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, a moment that changed his life forever.
“I was born and raised a Roman Catholic. When my father passed away a few years ago the funeral was held at the parish where I grew up. The priest looked out at the congregation and said, ‘Communion in this church is reserved for people in this church in good grace.’ He looked right at me and said, ‘And you, sir, are not in good grace.'”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017, almost 40,000 people received an HIV diagnosis in the United States. President Trump called this an epidemic.
“My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years,” Trump said.
One in seven people living with HIV do not know they have it. Survivors and doctors say the first step in fighting it is knowing your status.
“I was almost suicidal when I found out. It crushed me,” said a Northwest Arkansas woman living with HIV.
“Those who are afraid who are unwilling to get tested often pay such an awful price,” said Dr. Stephen Hennigan, infectious disease specialist.
Williams is helping fight the battle by offering free testing at his church, a place he says is open and welcome to everyone.
“The most important reason for persons knowing their status and understanding HIV and AIDS is to help end the stigma. The stigma of being a lesser than person,” Williams said.
He hopes by just having an open door, survivors can conquer the fear around the disease.
“There are many people who are HIV positive in the community; the good thing is you don’t have to wear it stamped on your forehead anymore,” Williams said.
Spirit of Peace Church offers free HIV testing throughout the week. You must call the church to schedule an appointment.
The church is also working with CVS Pharmacy on Township Road in Fayetteville to provide PrEP medication that helps prevent contracting HIV and AIDS.