Is compassion waning in light of a so-called gay disease?

The Kaiser/Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles first admitted patients with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) about two years ago. At the time, chaplain Robert Bird avoided those patients.

“Homosexuality—and homosexuals—were abhorrent to me,” he says. “But as I read the Bible, I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t just avoid these men if I’m a follower of Christ.’ ”

Bird, an evangelical, now spends much of his time with people who suffer from AIDS. “Their lifestyle is not an issue any more,” he says. “These people are going to die, and I’ve never seen such ugly deaths. In addition to the physical discomfort, they face tremendous psycho-social anguish, and, mostly, they die alone.

“I don’t support the gay movement,” Bird says. “… It’s just that I don’t see Jesus coming in with a set of rules and regulations. He met people at their point of need.” Bird’s position does not reflect the attitude of the Christian community at large, which seems uncertain about how to respond.

When AIDS began to capture headlines a few years ago, fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell said it could be God’s judgment on homosexuals. Falwell’s political organization, Moral Majority, lobbied against government-funded research to find a cure for the disease. The organization argued that homosexuals should solve their own problems.

Statistics indicate that the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from AIDS are male homosexuals with numerous sexual partners. However, AIDS is by no means an exclusively “gay disease.” It has also been transmitted through blood transfusions, contaminated hypodermic needles, and heterosexual contact. Even infants have gotten AIDS from their mothers, most likely during pregnancy, or possibly through breast-feeding. There is no known cure for the disease, which destroys the body’s immune system.

An estimated one million Americans carry the AIDS virus but don’t exhibit symptoms. No one can say why some of these people will eventually develop symptoms while others will not. Researchers have been hesitant to make blanket statements about how the disease can and cannot spread. This has generated a degree of hysteria, which the church has not escaped. The Episcopal bishop of California, for example, recently issued a pastoral letter in response to the fears of parishioners that they could get AIDS from drinking Communion wine from a common cup. In his letter, Bishop William Swing said he would not prohibit the use of the common cup. However, he urged “pastoral understanding” for those who choose not to drink from it.

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In Los Angeles, a young AIDS victim who became a Christian through Chaplain Bird’s ministry wanted to be baptized by immersion in an evangelical church. However, his request was denied because of fears that the virus would spread in the baptismal water.

Bird says homosexuals generally resent conservative Christians. “The Christian community would like to think that all the homosexuals who have aids are sorry for their sin,” he says. “But that’s just not the case. Very few are saying ‘I really want to change.’ ”

“Evangelicals have come into this issue with a lot more hatred than love,” says Joanne Highley, of L.I.F.E. Ministry, an evangelical ministry to people struggling with homosexuality. Based in New York City, L.I.F.E. is exploring the possibility of launching a ministry to AIDS victims.

Alan Medinger, executive director of Exodus, an umbrella organization of evangelical ministries to homosexuals, says he knows of a Bible study for aids patients at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. But he says, “There is very little going on in an organized way. Part of it is the church’s natural aversion to homosexuality. I think also that people just don’t know what to do. You just don’t go to a hospital and ask to see the AIDS patients.”

A few churches across the country have held special services for people with AIDS. Some churches have circulated tracts, extending a special welcome to those with the disease. Generally speaking, however, Christian ministry to AIDS sufferers has been limited to organizations that do not regard homosexual behavior as sinful. These include the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and various gay caucuses in mainline denominations. “Here in New York City,” Highley says, “the only place to turn to is a gay hotline.”

Researcher Harold Ivan Smith, who heads a counseling organization called Tear Catchers, says the evangelical church has lost credibility over the issue. “AIDS researchers are increasingly looking at evangelicals as idiots and bigots,” he says. “The church has to admit that homosexuality exists, not just in the big bad city, but in the church as well. It’s too easy to say, ‘The wages of sin is death.’ We have to find ways to make it easier for prodigal sons to get back into the fold.”


Addressing the AIDS Threat

U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop is the chief public health official in America. In an exclusive interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Koop went on record for the first time about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a disease he calls “a ticking time bomb.” An abridged version of that interview follows.

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Are the public’s fears about AIDS warranted?

Yes. The public health threat is considerable. Up to now, the number of AIDS cases has been doubling about every year, and 100 percent of those who have had a diagnosis of AIDS for more than three years are dead. It is a disease we can neither cure nor prevent at the present time.

AIDS can be maintained at its approximate level today if people maintain mutually faithful, monogamous sexual relationships. The difficulty is that with the virus having leapt into the heterosexual community, you never know whether a heterosexual partner might be affected. There are reports of a very high incidence of positive virus tests among prostitutes—another source of contamination within communities.

How contagious is the AIDS virus?

AIDS is an infectious disease, but it is not highly contagious. It’s very hard to get AIDS, and the best evidence of this is the hundreds of health workers who have worked with AIDS patients. None has ever been proven to contract AIDS except by one of two methods: sexual contact or a needle prick that transmitted the virus.

Should children who have contracted AIDS through blood transfusions attend public schools?

On the basis of everything we know, the likelihood of contagion between an AIDS child and a normal child is infinitesimally small. You have to get the virus from body fluids—like tears, saliva, or semen—into the bloodstream of another person to cause infection. That isn’t likely to happen, but it would be possible for one child to bite another child. So we can never say “never.”

What is your role in addressing the AIDS problem?

The surgeon general is obligated to warn the people of this country about things that are dangerous to their health and to advise them of what they can do to promote good health. If this message is being adequately delivered some other way, my obligation is essentially moot. Some people think there is a sinister reason why I have not made public announcements about AIDS, but there is no sinister reason. One of my superiors decided several years ago that he would be the spokesman who would address the AIDS problem. There is no “real story” that isn’t being told. Nothing is being hidden from the public.

Do you view AIDS as a homosexual disease?

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No. AIDS is a viral disease that apparently enters the victim through the blood. Several classes of people are most susceptible to it. First, there are those who receive contaminated blood through a transfusion, and we have done our best to eliminate that risk with a screening test. The number of contaminated samples that get through is almost nil.

A second high-risk category includes people who engage in a practice that transfers blood from one person to another—primarily intravenous drug users who pass around the same needle.

The third group is made up of practicing homosexuals. The disease first came to the public’s attention in the promiscuous homosexual community.

Finally, people who receive a blood product prepared from blood that has been contaminated are at risk. However, that problem has been eliminated. The virus is very susceptible to heat, so that low-heat treated blood products are freed of the virus without destroying the efficacy of the product.

Do you plan to shut down bathhouses or take other steps to change the way public facilities are operated in order to control the disease?

I can’t answer that question because the authority to close bathhouses has just been conferred on me as surgeon general.

We would prefer to see the states, rather than the federal government, take whatever action is needed. But I can conceive of certain evidence coming to the fore that might indicate it makes good sense to close bathhouses. It would be much more difficult for many people to pursue promiscuous homosexual activity if such meeting places were closed.

As surgeon general, will you address the moral aspects of AIDS and how it is transmitted?

What I have said about containing AIDS is a public health statement. But it is interpreted by people who don’t like prohibition of a permissive sexual lifestyle as a moral statement.

Some might say you are not moralizing enough.

As a public health officer, I’m not entitled to a moral opinion in a situation like this. But the public health opinion that I give happens to coincide with a moral position of a very large segment of the country.

Because the disease is closely related to behavior Christians consider sinful, will ministering to AIDS victims present a particular challenge to churches?

Many will have difficulty separating what they consider sinful behavior from the consequences of that behavior. It is akin to the way the churches very slowly made an about-face in their attitude toward unmarried, pregnant women. Before the 1970s, churches took a fairly harsh attitude toward unmarried women who got pregnant. There was not much love and compassion extended to them to see them through delivery. As a result of this attitude, one of the pillars of the proabortion movement was born.

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In the last decade, however, churches have taken the lead in a compassionate understanding of the plight of a woman who is pregnant and would rather not be—especially those who are not married. The churches’ response has been to provide alternatives to abortion. Now there are more crisis pregnancy centers in the country than there are abortion clinics. Unfortunately, we don’t have a similar opportunity with AIDS, because it is a deadly disease with 100 percent mortality.

Have the Jesus people joined the silent majority?

From its birth in the late 1960s to its heyday in the early 1970s, the Jesus movement swept over the church in a massive, radical swell. To most churchgoers, it looked as if hippies had invaded the holy of holies.

These young people—who were turning to God by the thousands—were different from the traditional parishioner. They had their own ways of dressing, speaking, and singing. Even their approach to religion was different.

The new converts combined Christian hope with revolutionary zeal. Some witnessed miracles and spoke in tongues, while others practiced confrontational tactics as they took to the streets to share their faith. Mass baptisms took place on both the East and the West Coasts. And hundreds participated in marches, carrying banners that proclaimed their new allegiance to Jesus.

As they grew older, however, most of the Jesus people cut their hair, traded their blue jeans for a business suit, and left their communes for single-family houses. With the fading of those outward symbols, many thought the Jesus people were history.

But more than a decade later, the spirit of the Jesus movement is alive in Christian communities across the country. The largest of the residential communities has been in Chicago’s inner city for 12 years. Jesus People USA (JPUSA) is home to 350 adults and 125 children who have given up the American dreams of houses, possessions, and bank accounts.

The community is housed in an old hotel. Most of the members work at an outside job or for one of the organization’s businesses, including Jesus People Moving, Jesus People Carpentry, and Jesus People Graphics. But none of them receives a personal income. All earnings go into a common purse out of which come payments on the group’s property, living expenses, and ministries. Those ministries include music, street drama, publishing, and giving clothing and a free meal to as many as 300 people every afternoon.

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“What we’re dealing with here is Acts chapter 2 and Acts chapter 4,” says Glenn Kaiser, one of 10 JPUSA pastors and the leader of Rez Band, the community’s hard-rock quintet. “We’re very close to the poverty level. We buy bulk and share whatever profits there are. We feel a call to this kind of life-style. We feel we can accomplish so much more.”



A Vote of Confidence

A new Gallup poll indicates that Americans have more confidence in organized religion than in any other key institution.

Two-thirds of those surveyed expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the church or organized religion. That figure is slightly higher than last year’s measurement. Among 10 key institutions included in the survey, organized labor, television, and big business earned the lowest confidence ratings.

In a separate survey, the Gallup organization found that the public rates members of the clergy highest in “honesty and ethical standards.” More than two-thirds of the public gave the clergy a high approval rating. Pharmacists ranked second, with a 65 percent positive rating.


A Movie about Mary

Thousands of protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. premiere of the film Hail Mary in New York City. The movie, by French director Jean-Luc Godard, opened to similar protests earlier this year in Europe.

Mary, played by actress Myriem Roussel, is depicted as a gasoline station attendant who appears nude in several scenes. Joseph is portrayed as a cab driver.

New York Catholic Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor denounced the movie from the pulpit of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Pope John Paul II has criticized the film, saying it “deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers.”

Opposition to the movie caused an arm of Columbia Pictures to drop distribution of Hail Mary. However, the movie has been picked up by an independent distributor.


No More Common Cup

America’s largest graduate-level Lutheran seminary has discontinued use of the common cup during Holy Communion.

Luther Northwestern Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, took the action after a task force studied the theological and public health aspects of the practice. The seminary, operated jointly by the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, now uses a pouring chalice with individual cups during Holy Communion.

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Campus pastor Paul Knutson said the decision was not motivated by fears that wine from a common cup could transmit Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Rather, the task force study was initiated after an article in Lutheran Standard magazine questioned the health aspects of using the common cup. In the article, a retired professor of public health urged congregations to discontinue the practice.

“After even a few communicants have been served from the common cup, the cup becomes heavily contaminated with millions of bacteria and viruses,” wrote George Michaelsen, an American Lutheran Church layman. “… For about a dozen illnesses, the major means of disease transmission is the common drinking cup or glass.”


Living Together Increases

The number of unmarried men and women who are living together has more than tripled since 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last year, nearly 2 million unmarried couples were living together, compared to 523,000 in 1970, and 1.6 million in 1980. In 60 percent of the unmarried couples counted in 1984, both partners were younger than 35 years of age.

The bureau also found that more Americans postponed marriage in 1984 than at any time since the turn of the century. The median age of newlyweds rose to 25.4 years for men and 23 years for women.


U.S. Firms Take Action

The heads of ten major American corporations have formed a group to work for an end to apartheid.

The new group, called the U.S. Corporate Council on South Africa, will work with South African business executives in supporting local initiatives that would lead to the dismantling of apartheid. The American companies involved are signers of the Sullivan Principles, an employment code stipulating that black and white workers in South Africa must be treated equally.

American corporations represented in the council include General Motors, the Burroughs Corporation, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, and Mobil. All of the corporations involved do business in South Africa.


Challenging a Chaplain

In a federal district court, nontheist Paul Kurtz is challenging practices related to the office of U.S. Senate chaplain. Kurtz, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, argued two separate suits last month before Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer.

In the first suit, Kurtz challenged the use of public funds to print the Senate chaplain’s prayers in book form. Kurtz’s attorney, Ronald Lindsay, argued that the publication advances religion, in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

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Defense attorney Sandra Schraibman argued that the book is within the bounds of the Constitution. The publication is secular in purpose, she said, since its primary objective is to make the public aware of what is being said by the Senate chaplain.

In the second suit, Lindsay argued for restricting the Senate chaplain from using language on the Senate floor that disparages the beliefs of nontheists. He also asked the court to grant Kurtz the opportunity to address the Senate and the House of Representatives. In response, Senate legal counsel Michael Davidson said there is no provision under congressional rules for an individual to demand to be heard in either house of Congress.

Although JPUSA is the largest, numerous other residential communities with roots in the Jesus movement continue to minister across the United States. Their work, and the ministries of scores of churches across the country, lead people like Chuck Smith to say the Jesus movement never really ended.

“Those very people who committed their lives to Christ during the Jesus movement are now adults, and as adults they are married and have children,” says Smith, one of the fathers of the movement. “Their lifestyles change, but their commitment to Jesus hasn’t changed.”

Smith’s church, Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, began ministering to alienated youths in 1969. Today, his church keeps alive some of the practices that were hallmarks of the Jesus movement. Members still use the Pacific Ocean for mass baptisms, and thousands of young people still turn out for the church’s contemporary Christian music concerts.

Indeed, the Jesus movement made a lasting mark on church music. Maranatha! Music, until last summer the music publishing arm of Calvary Chapel, was partly responsible for that musical revolution. Maranatha created worship songs by joining simple melodies to words of Scripture. Its recording artists also helped establish contemporary Christian music, now a multimillion-dollar industry.

In addition to creating new music, the Jesus movement produced leaders for today’s church. Smith says more than 100 young men who were with Calvary Chapel during the Jesus movement are pastoring large churches. One of them, Greg Laurie, came to Calvary Chapel when he was 17 after having gone through the drug culture. Now 33, Laurie is pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, a 7,000-member church in Riverside, California.

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“I think it would have been hard to reach me through a traditional approach,” Laurie says of his conversion. “… The Jesus movement was an awakening. It was the intervention of God in a culture that had been largely written off by society—a culture that was very unique in what it was thinking and what it was doing.”

As a pastor, Laurie says he benefits from lessons learned during the Jesus movement. “Some 15 years later, I see a culture of young people coming into our church that I personally don’t relate to. I have had to overcome some of the same prejudices that some of the older folks had to overcome when I came into the church with others like myself.”


Can students hold Bible club meetings at school without violating the Constitution?

The nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court recently showed a lively interest in arguments for and against Bible club meetings in public high schools. Known as Bender v. Williamsport, the case involves a group of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, high school students who were prohibited from holding Bible club meetings during regularly scheduled school activities periods.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the students, the decision will affirm the Equal Access Act passed last year by Congress. If the ruling goes against the students, however, it could call into question whether the equal access law maintains the state neutrality toward religion that is required by the U.S. Constitution.

Bender v. Williamsport will be among the most important church-and-state rulings to come out of the Court’s current term. The case’s outcome will be scrutinized for indications of whether the Court is leaning toward greater accommodation of the free expression of religion.

In presenting arguments on behalf of the students, attorney James M. Smart, Jr., pointed out that “the crucial distinction is individual versus state action.… Is the government acting to promote or conduct [the meeting], or are private individuals?”

If school officials began meddling in the content of a student-led meeting, Smart said, they would be guilty of the same “excessive entanglement” that is feared by opponents of equal access.

An attorney with the Christian Legal Society, Smart argued a similar case, Widmar v. Vincent, before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.

In the Widmar case, Christian students at the Kansas City campus of the University of Missouri had been denied permission to gather for prayer, worship, and discussions about the Bible on university property. The students won that right when the Supreme Court ruled that public universities must permit student groups to meet on campus without regard for the subject matter being discussed.

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The Williamsport students seek to ensure the same rights—during designated activities periods—for high school students across the country. However, their opponents, including the Williamsport school board, say this case is substantially different from the Widmar case.

Attorney John C. Youngman, Jr., a former Williamsport school board member, told the Supreme Court justices that not all high school students would understand that a religious meeting in a classroom was not officially sponsored or supported by school administrators.

His reasoning was challenged by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Associate Justice Byron White. If several students formed a group called “Students Against Taxation,” White asked, “would the public think the views expressed at that meeting were the school’s [views]?” Youngman said that would not be the case.

White asked why a religious club should be viewed differently. Youngman responded: “The perceptions of students at the lower end of the intellectual scale are much more subject to impressionability.” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that Youngman’s argument would be more persuasive if he applied “an objective test of what a reasonable student would think.”

In presenting the students’ case, Smart was grilled by the justices about whether equal access could be used to push religion on children who are too young to organize their own meeting. “There is some age at which any sort of religious activity may reasonably be interpreted as having been sponsored by the school,” Smart said, “such as kindergarten prayer.”

Smart also was questioned about the potential problem of cults or hate groups meeting at school. He said certain groups would be subject to a “compelling state interest” in keeping them out. An alternative for school officials is to require parental consent for each child’s participation in extracurricular activities.

Charles Fried, acting U.S. solicitor general, spoke on behalf of the Williamsport students. He emphasized the Court’s responsibility to factor last year’s passage of the Equal Access Act into its deliberations.

“Congress concluded that secondary school students are sufficiently mature to make the same distinctions the rest of us make between state endorsement and state neutrality,” he said. The lower court ruling against the Williamsport students “can’t be affirmed without controverting and rejecting the major premise of the Equal Access Act.”

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That act became law last year after protracted congressional debate. If the Supreme Court reverses an appeals court decision against the Williamsport students, the principle of equal access in the nation’s high schools will be soundly established.


‘Back To The Bible’ Founder Theodore Epp Is Dead At 78

Theodore H. Epp was not an evangelical celebrity. And those who knew him best say that is the way he wanted it. Epp, who founded the “Back to the Bible Broadcast” in 1939, died October 13 in Lincoln, Nebraska, of heart failure. He was 78.

“He never wanted to be in the limelight,” said Epp’s successor, Warren Wiersbe. “He was most pleased to be able to stay in the background and do his work.” Wiersbe said Epp would not allow his ministry to name a new office building and library in the Philippines the “Theodore H. Epp Building.”

Epp was a father, a pastor, an evangelist, and the author of numerous books, booklets, and magazine articles. Back to the Bible publishes nearly 70 of his titles. A charter member of National Religious Broadcasters, Epp launched “Back to the Bible Broadcast” in an era when religious broadcasting was a barren field.

“He began his ministry to reach people in the churches of Nebraska,” Wiersbe said. “When it began to grow he figured it might expand to include Oklahoma and Kansas. He was the most surprised of anybody that things turned out like they did.” Today, nearly 600 radio stations around the world carry “Back to the Bible.” The organization has offices in eight overseas countries.

J. Allan Petersen of Family Concern, a close friend of Epp’s, likened the broadcaster to a workhorse. Said Petersen: “There are racehorses that are sleek, fast, and showy. But he was a workhorse, a plodder with a great, persistent faith.…”

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