On his sixth day without food, the Rev. M. Andrew Robinson-Gaither, already a slim man, is noticeably leaner. Leaner, but not at all hungry, he said. Since Kwanzaa began the day after Christmas, he had led his South-Central Los Angeles church on a seven-day fast to focus attention on the dwindling resources of the church's food pantry for people with HIV and AIDS.
In black church circles it is a touchy project, this linking of Christianity with Kwanzaa and Kwanzaa with AIDS. Not only is Robinson-Gaither mixing the religious with the cultural, but he persists in talking about HIV and AIDS and encouraging the church community to embrace homosexual and bisexual people. This is a taboo in many black churches, which are more likely to urge people to change their sexuality.
"For a black minister in a mainstream denomination to do something like this is extremely meaningful," said Jeffrey King, founder and chief executive of In the Meantime, a Silver Lake-based support group for black men of all sexual orientations. "Can the AIDS crisis [among blacks] be effectively addressed? I think so. Can it be addressed without the help of the black church? I don't think so."
Many of Faith United Methodist Church's 250 members have fasted for half days or for one or two days at a time, donating the food they did not use to the church's pantry. Only Robinson-Gaither has fasted completely, sipping just water and juice. Small bags of dried and canned food from his congregation sit on his office floor, symbols of missed lunches and dinners.
The pantry, run from the church basement, is the only such pantry in South-Central. The pantry receives no government funding, and although donations have been dwindling, need has been steadily growing. In the last 18 months, the pantry's clients have grown from 250 to about 430 families.
Some older members and those on medication said they accompanied their pastor in prayer, tried to eat less and sent over the food they skipped. They know that their church, with its bold red ribbon hanging on the front, is the subject of whispers around town, but they say they do not care.
"I've had people say to me that our church is supportive of AIDS, that it is promoting AIDS," said Mollie Bell, a church member and longtime community activist. "Well we're supportive of giving people knowledge about AIDS. I'm just now finding out how it's affecting black heterosexual women, and that's because a lot of our men are going to jail and they have sex in jail but don't think they're gay. Then they're coming home to heterosexual women and giving them AIDS."
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of infection among African American men who have sex with men is 30%. In Los Angeles, the rate is 25% for that group and 15% for Latinos.
In Los Angeles County, 20% of HIV-positive African American men said they had had sex with women in the last six months, according to a recent county study. That is double the proportion of HIV-positive white men who reported sex with women, and five times the proportion of infected Latino men.
In the pretty little church on 108th Street off Western Avenue, members routinely meld politics, protest and Christianity.
Faith United is where the men dubbed "The L.A.-4" met to plan their legal defense after the 1992 riots. It was a first stop for former Black Panther Party leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt after a court ordered his release from prison, and where Robinson-Gaither eulogized former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. The church works on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal, the death row inmate in Pennsylvania convicted of murdering a police officer, and it belongs to a national anti-police-brutality coalition.
"I would say that the church has really grown spiritually since pastor came 15 years ago," said Elizabeth Bazley. "This fast is just another way that he really practices what he preaches."
His politics, however, are also personal.
"I have a brother struggling with HIV. He's got a wife and three kids," Robinson-Gaither said. "I have two cousins who moved away from the family and died alone, rather than say they had AIDS."
Robinson-Gaither is not the only mainstream black minister in Los Angeles whose church has a strong AIDS ministry. Many area churches invest substantially in support groups, counseling and health programs. Robinson-Gaither points to the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray at First African Methodist Episcopal church as a leader in the cause. Murray's church has a $6 million program to provide 38 housing units for people with AIDS.
To fight AIDS effectively, Robinson-Gaither said, AIDS activists and the black church must change.