But, one thing we have as much as we have churches, are new HIV/AIDS cases.
In 2007, 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.
And rural areas like Dorchester, South Carolina, have it particularly bad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [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.
Which brings me to Brenda Byrth. She's the pastor at Bibleway Holiness Church in Dorchester, one of the smaller towns in a state filled with small towns. And she is on a mission.
You know, working to keep marriage equality off the books. No? Not that.
Well, then, she must be trying to keep discrimination laws against the LGBT community on the books. Not that either.
So, what's her mission?
At Byrth's church, with a congregation of about 25, she holds monthly HIV/AIDS awareness meetings. And she usually has about 10 or 12 people attend these meetings, which shows the impact that HIV/AIDS is having on the South.
|Pastor Byrth and her husband, Carl|
And while it wasn't exactly her choice, it may be her calling. Brenda Byrth says herself that she really doesn't want to be where she is....in rural South Carolina. She's a big city gal, and can't even explain it herself how she ended up in a town of less than 3,000: "I'm pretty sure you can't get more rural than this."
At the time, Byrth's mother, Marie, was the pastor of Bibleway Holiness Church. And Marie wanted her daughter to take over, but Brenda Byrth said no. "I said, 'I'd give my life for you, but I can't do that,' " Brenda Byrth says. "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."
But her mother is why she came, and why she's stayed. 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 to take care of her.
And her mission to help Dorchester, and all 3,000 of its inhabitants began.
On a muddy clay road.
When Dorchester's Marion Road got rained on, it literally washed away, and that meant meant no school for the kids, no church services, no vehicles in or out. And folks there were used to it. But then, after a brutal thunderstorm that flooded the area, an elderly man died and the ambulance couldn't reach him for three days because a thunderstorm had flooded the area.
Brenda Byrth was enraged: "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 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.
On a mission.
"My mom always said: Just standing around and looking doesn't help the problem, you've got to get involved. Even when it's someone else's problem, it's your community, and you're a part of that community."
And it was during a visit to the "sick and shut-in" that Byrth had her first encounter with AIDS in Dorchester. A new couple had moved to town and Brenda Byrth heard that the husband was ill. She decided to pay the family a visit and see what she could do.
When she got to the house, she found the middle-aged man, scarcely able to breathe, lying on excrement-soiled sheets. His wife had gone away.
In a perfect world, Brenda Byrth would have reached the man in time, and fought to get him a doctor and medicines, and the man would have lived a far longer life. But, as far too often happens, the man died, and Brenda Byrth discovered HIV/AIDS in rural South Carolina.
"I said if things can't change, then I need to leave, because I can't live like this."
Byrth stayed in Dorchester. She is raising awareness for HIV/AIDS in her congregation of 25, where almost half show up to meetings. She is visiting those with HIV/AIDS and shwoing her town, and all the other small towns, that you needed be afraid, you needn't pack up and leave. You just lend a hand.
Yep, churches on every corner in these parts, but when even one houses someone like Pastor Brenda Byrth, it all seems to make sense.