Seele, Pernessa 1954–
Pernessa Seele 1954–
Pernessa Seele is the founder and chief executive officer of The Balm in Gilead, Inc. This secular, not-for-profit organization mobilizes black churches in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa to work toward preventing further transmission of HIV/AIDS within black communities and to care for those infected with HIV, the cause of AIDS.
In 1989, shocked by the lack of community and church support for the AIDS victims dying at Harlem Hospital, Seele recruited local religious leaders to participate in the first Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. That same year Seele founded The Balm in Gilead with the motto “Healing Through Prayer, Education, Advocacy and Service.” It became the world’s largest nongovernmental AIDS awareness organization directed toward the black community and the only such organization to specifically engage churches in the struggle. As The Balm in Gilead grew, Seele expanded its mission to include the entire African Diaspora.
Pernessa C. Seele was born on October 15, 1954, the daughter of Luella and Charles Seele of Lincolnville, South Carolina, a rural black township northwest of Charleston. Weekly prayer meetings were the basis for community and political action in Lincolnville, and the local church reached out to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Seele attended public schools and studied biology at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), a historically black school. She later studied immunology at Atlanta University, earning her master’s degree in 1979.
Upon completing her education Seele moved to New York City, where she became a research assistant in immunology at the City University of New York (CUNY). In 1987 Seele became the first AIDS coordinator at the Interfaith Medical Center’s methadone clinics. Two years later she became the drug addiction program administrator for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, working at Harlem Hospital’s AIDS Initiative Program. In 1992 Seele became vice president of the corporation.
While working in New York hospitals, Seele became keenly aware of the terrible toll the AIDS epidemic was taking on the black community. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks accounted for more than 50
At a Glance…
Born Pernessa C. Seele on October 15, 1954, in Lincolnville, SC. Education: Clark College, BS, 1976; Atlanta University, MS, 1979.
Career: City University of New York, research assistant, 1981-84; Drake Business School, instructor, 1987; Interfaith Medical Center of New York, AIDS coordinator, 1987-89; Narcotics and Drug Research Institute, associate AIDS trainer, 1988-89; New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, drug addiction program administrator, 1989-92, vice president, 1992-94; The Balm in Gilead, founder and chief executive officer, 1989–.
Selected Memberships: Harlem United, board member, 1993-95; AIDS Action Council, board member, 1996; AIDS Action Committee, 1998.
Selected Awards: Manhattan Borough, President Award, 1996; Harlem United Community AIDS Center, Life Award, 1997; State of Michigan, special tribute, 1997; Community Works, Harlern Women Making a Difference Award, 1997, 1998; Unity Fellowship Church, Bishop Carl Bean Visionary Award, 1998.
Addresses: Office —The Balm in Cilead, Inc., 130 West 42nd St., Suite 450, New York, NY 10036-7802.
percent of new AIDS cases in the United States and more than 60 percent of new cases among teenagers. It was the number one cause of death among blacks aged 25 to 44. One in 50 American black men and one in 160 black women were infected with HIV.
On The Balm in Gilead Web site Seele wrote that, while working at Harlem Hospital, “I was stunned by the sight of people and families suffering from AIDS amid a seemingly heartless community, that neither understood the reasons for their pain, nor sought to alleviate their suffering. How could Black America, for the first time in its history, turn away from brothers and sisters caught in a crisis that could destroy the community at its very roots? Why was the response to the AIDS crisis different from previous crises—enslavement, discrimination, and lynching?”
Although black churches historically had served as centers of social and political activism, most had been silent on the issue of HIV/AIDS. Seele told Essence magazine in 1996, “as I watched young Black folks die from AIDS, I wondered, Where were their families, where was their church?… Black folks have always been able to pray. We successfully prayed Harriet Tubman through the Underground Railroad, and I was convinced we could pray our people through this devastating epidemic.”
Seele had lived in Harlem for only one week when she began to enlist local religious leaders for a Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. In 1989 hundreds of leaders from 50 churches, representing all major religions and Christian denominations, participated in the prayer march around Harlem Hospital for AIDS awareness.
The success of the Harlem Week of Prayer led Seele to found The Balm in Gilead. Its purpose was to involve black churches in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The organization’s name, from a biblical reference in the book of Jeremiah, was familiar to blacks from the popular hymn, “Let there be balm in Gilead, and let it begin with me,” and from the spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead // To make the wounded whole // There is a balm in Gilead // To heal the sin-sick soul.” For Seele, HIV/AIDS was Gilead and black churches were the balm.
Seele found that the black community was so busy fighting on other fronts, including gang violence and police brutality, church burnings, hospital closings, blighted inner-city schools, and affirmative action reversals, that for almost 20 years the community and the black media had ignored the scourge of AIDS. Seele found that many black churches refused to address the HIV/AIDS crisis because they viewed it as a disease of homosexuals. She asked church leaders to put aside their feelings on sexual issues.
Seele’s Harlem Week of Prayer served as the prototype for the annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, a cornerstone of The Balm in Gilead. By 2004 more than 15,000 black churches were participating in the program, distributing information, hosting workshops on AIDS, or devoting a sermon or song to AIDS victims. The Balm in Gilead gave the churches free resource kits.
Under Seele’s leadership, The Balm in Gilead has developed a number of initiatives to support HIV/AIDS understanding. The Black Church HIV/AIDS Training Institute, initiated in 1998, holds annual three-day seminars and workshops for black church leaders engaged in HIV/AIDS education and support. The institute provides in-depth education from specialists about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and techniques for integrating HIV/AIDS education into church programs. The institute also promotes the understanding of biblical texts that encourage church activism on issues such as HIV/AIDS, develops techniques for churches to address the social, economic, and psychological impacts of AIDS, and teaches about the politics of the disease. The institute is partnered with the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, the nation’s largest institution of black religious education. Seele also developed the National Certification and Capacity Building Conference to assist communitybased organizations in partnering with black churches.
The Black Church Lights the Way program encourages black churches to participate in The Balm in Gilead’s annual June campaign for HIV testing. The campaign includes television, radio, and newspaper advertisements directed at the black community. It asks churches to encourage their congregations to be tested for HIV and provides resources. The campaign cooperates with local public health departments and other community-based organizations to provide on-site HIV testing to congregations and the larger community.
In conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Balm in Gilead established the Faith-Based HIV/AIDS National Technical Assistance Center. It is the only program in the nation that is designed to assist black churches—and public agencies and community-based organizations that want to work with churches—on AIDS issues within African American, African, and Caribbean communities. Seele also developed and implemented the African American National Clergy Task Force, consisting of 60 religious leaders and scholars who serve as advisors to The Balm in Gilead.
Seele has been adept at using the media to draw attention to the issues promoted by The Balm in Gilead. She was the force behind the Black Clergy Declaration of War against HIV and AIDS, signed by leaders from every major denomination at a White House ceremony in 1995. In 1998 Seele began hosting a radio program—“A Message of Hope in This Time of AIDS”—that targeted black communities in large cities. In 2003 The Balm in Gilead launched a national magazine for the Black Church Week of Prayer. The magazine addressed AIDS issues in the black community, including stories relating to teens, women, and the elderly. The Balm in Gilead produces other publications as well as educational and training products.
Seele produced numerous fundraisers for The Balm in Gilead, including a 1996 production at Manhattan’s Riverside Church and the resulting Emmy-award-winning video. She was an AIDS consultant for the Narcotic Drug and Research Institute and has worked closely with the CDC, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller University, and the Research Foundation for the City of New York. Seele has been a consultant to the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Brain Trust. She is an adjunct professor of Ethics and AIDS at New York Theological Seminary and a consultant with the Harlem Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention of Columbia University School of Public Health. Seele also served a term as vice president of the Harlem Congregation for Community Improvement.
Although Seele’s organization has involved thousands of churches and millions of congregants in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, many churches and mosques continue to avoid the issue because of its association with homosexuality, promiscuity, and drug addiction, and prohibitions against the use of condoms and needle exchanges. But Seele has made headway. In 1999 she gave the New York Times a typical scenario: “A pastor who has never said anything about H.I.V. decides to do a special prayer, even though he thinks, ‘I know no one in my church has AIDS.’ After church, somebody thanks him for the prayer, saying, ‘I have AIDS’ or ‘I am taking care of my grandkids because my daughter has AIDS.’ The pastor is shocked and calls an AIDS service organization that helps him begin educational work.”
Seele told the American Journal of Public Health in 2003 about her model: “We don’t come to the church and put the issues in their face. We talk about people, get them to understand that HIV is in their church, it’s in the mosque, these are the people they love. There are mothers in the church whose sons have died. AIDS awareness training and education provides them with an opportunity to say something that makes sense. People want to share their burdens with their pastor, or their imam, so it’s about educating the leadership so they can engage their congregations in appropriate ways.”
Over time, Seele has expanded The Balm in Gilead, first into the Caribbean, and then into sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS has reached epidemic proportions and is threatening an already fragile social infrastructure. Seele’s goals were broad: to fight the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS; to educate about HIV/AIDS and its prevention; to provide counseling and testing; to intervene to reduce high-risk behaviors and prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease; to provide long-term care and support for those living with HIV/AIDS and for children orphaned by the epidemic. Seele led missions to Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The Balm in Gilead also expanded into South Africa and reached out to Ugandan women.
By 2004 The Balm in Gilead had a staff of 22 and over $3 million in annual expenditures. It had endorsements from 17 major church denominations, caucuses, and coalitions, as well as independent churches.
“Creating Positive Change with the Power of Prayer,” About …Time (Rochester, NY), February 28, 1999, p. 36.
“Welcome: A Message from Pernessa C. Seele,” The Balm in Gilead, Inc. www.balmingilead.org/about/welcome.asp (June 28, 2004).
American Journal of Public Health, August 2003, p. 1207.
Essence, October 1996, p. 42.
Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2003, p. B20.
New Pittsburgh Courier, February 15, 2003, p. Al.
New York Times, March 2, 1999, p. F7.
The Balm in Gilead, Inc., www.balmingilead.org/home.asp (June 5, 2004).
More From encyclopedia.com
Richard Allen , Allen, Richard 1760–1831 Richard Allen was one of the first African American religious and civil rights leaders in the United States. Allen discovere… Helene Gayle , Gayle, Helene D. 1955– Epidemiologist, researcher “Sometimes it gets to me,” confessed Dr. Helene D. Gayle, one of the nation’s top scientists in Acq… Rite Aid Corp , headquarters: 30 hunter ln. camp hill, pa 17011-2404 phone: (717)761-2633 fax: (717)975-5871 toll free: (800)748-3243 url: http://www.riteaid.com Rit… David D. Ho , David Da-I Ho David Da-I Ho Molecular biologist David Da-I Ho (born 1952) has dedicated his career to identifying a cure for acquired immune deficien… African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church , Richard Allen (1760–1831), the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was born a slave in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 1… feudal aids , feudal aids. In the English feudal society which followed the Norman Conquest, custom permitted the king, at times of exceptionally heavy expenditure…
About this article
Seele, Pernessa 1954–
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article
You Might Also Like
Seele, Pernessa 1954–