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The president surprised the nation during his State of the Union address, describing the plight of Africa's 30 million AIDS victims and calling for $15 billion to curb the plague.

The President's words brought back memories of my own initial reaction to people with AIDS: Fear and rejection. Though I wouldn't admit it, deep down I believed people who got AIDS brought it on themselves.

But God has a way of dealing with our prejudices, as he did with me one Christmas in the mid-1980s. I was in a North Carolina prison for women. The atmosphere was glum, as it often is on holidays. The crowd that gathered to hear me preach was somber and subdued.

After the service, a prison official said, "Do you have time to visit Bessie Shipp?"

"Who's Bessie Shipp?" I asked. When they told me she was in an isolation cell dying of AIDS, I drew back. My first reaction was that I didn't have time. Yet, just the night before, I had seen a television report of Mother Teresa embracing two men with AIDS. If that frail, 90-pound nun could do it, how could I, the strapping ex-Marine, do less?

"I'll go," I said reluctantly.

We walked down a narrow corridor, and a door was opened to reveal a small, dark cell. There sat a petite African American woman wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering in the cold. She had an open Bible on her lap.

I came right to the point: "Bessie, we don't have much time. Do you know the Lord?"

"I want to," she replied softly. "But I don't always feel like he's there."

"Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Savior?" I asked.

Bessie looked down and finally whispered, "Yes, I would."

I took Bessie by the hand, and we prayed together in that cold concrete cell. Two days later the governor released Bessie, and she was baptized in her ...

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June 2003

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