AIDS is hitting epidemic proportions: Between 1 and 3 million apparently healthy persons in the United States are AIDS carriers. Another estimated 100,000 to 300,000 show signs of AIDS Related Complex (ARC), a milder immune deficiency with symptoms including fatigue, weight loss, fevers, chills, diarrhea, and swollen lymph glands. (Depending on the body’s response to the virus, someone with ARC might either go back to the healthy carrier stage or might develop a case of AIDS.) And, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of June 1, over 35,000 adults have developed the full-blown disease and 58 percent of them are now dead. The number of new AIDS cases in the U.S. doubles every 16 to 18 months.
Because a cure is not expected in the near future, the projections for 1991 are grim: 270,000 cumulative cases of AIDS, 55 percent of whom will have died of the disease—54,000 in 1991 alone. And some officials at the CDC feel that these are conservative figures.
According to experts, within the next five years nearly every person in the U.S. will know someone with AIDS. Harold Ivan Smith, executive director of Tear Catchers, a national ministry “devoted to training sympathetic sufferers,” brings this point home:
“I was speaking on AIDS at a large church in Texas, and people felt it had little relevance to them. By coincidence, a funeral service was being conducted in the chapel next to us for a missionary’s son who had contracted AIDS. ‘Are you aware of what is going on next door?’ I asked. As I told them, the sanctuary was deathly quiet. Some of these persons with AIDS are beginning to be names and faces from our churches.”
Because AIDS is still a relatively new phenomenon, few churches, businesses, schools, or government agencies know how to respond. Fear of the unknown and judgmental attitudes have prompted too many firings and suspensions as well as too much shunning and condemnation. Unfortunately, the news media have given wide coverage to the chorus of voices declaring AIDS to be God’s judgment on homosexuals. Getting very little or no coverage are those Christians who have ministered Jesus’ love and compassion to those dying of the new plague.
These are their stories.
“Our ministry to those with AIDS walked through the door one day in 1984 when Jerome, a 32-year-old man, came into my office and asked if I would bury him,” says Ted Karpf, rector of the Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Dallas, Texas. “He explained that because he had AIDS, three churches had refused his request.”
Jerome soon found himself immersed in a community that loved and accepted him—giving him hope and taking away his desire to kill himself, which, unbeknownst to Karpf, was what he had planned for the weekend he met the Episcopal rector.
Twenty people from the congregation organized themselves to take care of Jerome, cooking, cleaning, and shopping—as well as praying and sharing his emotional ups and downs.
But trouble loomed ahead. As the news media gave greater coverage to the AIDS crisis, several in the congregation began to fear they might catch the disease from Jerome.
“The first issue that emerged was the Communion chalice,” says Karpf. “People would nervously ask, ‘Are we in danger?’ ” Karpf called the CDC in Atlanta. They told him that though the virus had been found in saliva there had been no reported incidents of contagion through sharing utensils, plates, or Communion cups. In fact, Jerome was the one with the most to fear. Because his immune system was so weak, someone’s flu could translate into a deadly pneumonia for him. “It was Jerome who was risking his life every Sunday,” says Karpf, “not the others.”
By midsummer 1985, fear of AIDS was breaking out across the U.S. “This time people wanted me to ask Jerome to leave,” Karpf says. “Then they wanted anybody in the congregation who was gay or in one of the high-risk groups to leave.”
Karpf said no.
By the end of the summer, two-thirds of Saint Thomas’s 150 members had left. Karpf, however, was not bitter. “I did understand their fears.”
With his congregation down to 50 members and church income down by two-thirds, Karpf had his moments of doubt. “My wife asked me, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ I answered her, ‘No, I’m not sure. All I know is that a man asked us to keep faith with him. How can I tell him no?’ ”
The church had to start over. They made a public statement that those with AIDS were welcome. And they came. This was not easy for the members who stayed. “They’ve had to work through their feelings,” says Karpf.
Jerome helped them in this process. “He had said to us, ‘Don’t judge me—I’m living under my own judgment. What I need is for you to walk with me as much as you can.’ ” Because the congregation kept faith with him, Jerome came to faith. “Not because it was demanded of him,” explains Karpf, “but because people went the distance with him—they had risked a lot.”
Jerome’s last day in church was the day the church was reconstituted and he became an official member. “As the church was coming out of its ashes, Jerome was there with a 106-degree fever,” Karpf remembers, “wheezing and gasping for breath.”
Thirty-eight days later Jerome was dead. And the church grieved. Not only for Jerome, but also for the parish as they knew it. Everything about the church had changed.
Today 200 people worship at Saint Thomas the Apostle. It has also become a center from which ministry to people with AIDS flows, with six organizations operating from there. Karpf also helped create the Dallas AIDS Interfaith Network, which now includes 80 clergy from many different denominations. The Reverend Scott Allen, a Southern Baptist minister, heads the network.
Every Sunday three or four people with different aspects of the disease worship and partake of the sacraments at Saint Thomas. They will soon join the 30 from the congregation who have died of AIDS in the last 12 months.
These deaths take their toll on the church and on Karpf. But they have seen the mercy and grace of God as they have never seen it before. Says Karpf, “We’ve got a covenant to keep—to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Fear has caused many Christians to shun those with AIDS. But those already involved hope that this will change soon.
Says Tear Catchers’ Harold Ivan Smith, “This is an incredible hour for the church to be the church. People are dying lonely and desperate for eternal hope and care during their last days on earth. The church is in a unique position to minister to them because of our belief in healing (whether physical or eternal), our belief in comforting, and our understanding of grace. It’s time to spend less time on judgment and more time on ministry. We are, as Surgeon General Koop says, ‘fighting a disease, not people.’ ”
Two years ago, when Daniel G. Moreschi, a professional hospital planner for American Medical International, was considering the claims of Christ, some Christians told him that if he turned over his life to Christ he would have to give up his fight against AIDS. “Fortunately, I had good, long talks with two Pentecostal Christians who convinced me that if I gave my life to the Lord, not only would I not have to give up my fight against AIDS, but he would bless my ministry to those with AIDS even more.”
And so it was. Just a few weeks after he became a Christian, Moreschi woke up at 2:00 A.M. with the architectural plan for an AIDS hospital worked out in his head. A year and a half later, with Moreschi as the director of development, the University of Texas-affiliated Institute for Immunological Disorders was opened. It was the only research/treatment facility in the world devoted entirely to fighting AIDS (CT, Mar. 6, 1987, p. 52).
Not only has Moreschi immersed himself in encouraging the scientific battle against AIDS, he has also gotten personally involved by sharing his faith with those who have AIDS. He has counseled by phone over 150 people with AIDS from across the country.
“At first I met a lot of opposition from the institute staff when they found out I was a born-again Christian,” he remembers. “ ‘We are right smack in the middle of the Bible Belt,’ they told me, ‘and we haven’t seen much love from the churches. So don’t you tell us about love.’ ”
But Moreschi gained their trust. “I let them know that though I was a Christian, I was not there to proselytize. Professionally, we were there to support those who have AIDS regardless of the choices they’ve made.” Over the months, they saw him stand by his word.
But Moreschi’s belief in God continues to guide his life daily. “During my personal time, I share the gospel with whoever is open,” he explains. “And my faith keeps me strong in the face of a national tragedy. In one month, we had 33 deaths at the hospital—11 in one week. This is a horrible war.”
“But I really feel that we’re part of a big plan.” And Moreschi’s part of this plan is to befriend people such as Howard, a 24-year-old homosexual diagnosed with a severe case of ARC.
Howard remembers when he realized he might have the virus. “I was in San Francisco, and my former lover, with whom I had unresolved conflict, told me he had gotten AIDS 12 months earlier. When I asked him why he hadn’t told me while we were living together so that I could lessen my chances of getting AIDS, he said angrily, ‘Because you deserved it!’ ”
“Stunned, I walked slowly back to the hotel where I was living. Rage and fear welled up within me. My cries and my pounding on the walls attracted the attention of my neighbors, who came by to inquire if I was okay. I stayed in my room for a week.”
After returning to Houston, where his mother and Christian sister lived, Howard tested positive for the AIDS antibody. His sister immediately referred him to Moreschi, who went to her church.
Since Howard had no money, no job, and no transportation, Moreschi picked him up every day and brought him to the institute, where Howard served as a volunteer. Moreschi remembers: “Other Christians would ask me, ‘Well, is he coming to church? Is he a Christian? If not, why are you spending so much time with him?’ But I was there to minister to Howard regardless of what he decided.
“I told him, ‘Howard, I’m going to be your friend. Whether you come to God is between you and him. But I don’t want to look at you in the casket and know that I haven’t done everything I can to show you God’s love.’ ”
Five weeks later, Howard asked Moreschi, “You have church tonight, don’t you? Can I come?”
He’s been coming often ever since. “I’ve never encountered a more loving atmosphere,” says Howard. “The Sunday worship at the Royalwood Pentecostal Church is overwhelming—love just flows through that building.” He also has high praise for Moreschi, who is now vice-president of Pacifica Care International. “Dan is really something special. He’s the one person in the world I can trust. I’ve called him at 3 A.M. and cried, and he’s prayed for me. He has shown me that it’s okay to open up about the things that are inside of me. This love has made me realize I have to make a decision about my faith. I feel God pulling at my heart. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel God’s touch.”
But Howard is not ready to choose Christ. “I realize that if I commit myself to him I have to make God my priority. But I still have some things to deal with: my sickness and my yearning for the homosexual lifestyle—I don’t feel ready to give that up. The temptations are too strong now. I’m scared to try to leave it and to fall right back into it. But I really believe that it’s a matter of time before I commit myself fully to him.”
Ministering to those with AIDS does not come easily, “AIDS touches on issues so important to us: mortality, sexuality, fear, and compassion,” explains Fr. Carl Meirose, executive director of the ecumenical AIDS Pastoral Care Network in Chicago. When an AIDS patient painfully asked Jonathan Hunter of Santa Monica, California’s AIDS Resource Ministry, “Why don’t people visit me?” he answered, “Because when they look at you they see their own death.”
“I have had to deal with my own paranoia,” says Pastor Dennis Sawyer, of Chicago’s inner-city Philadelphia Church; “I know as much as there is to know about AIDS due to all the ministries our church is getting involved in, but little fears still crop up about sharing utensils or pillows with someone with AIDS.”
“Obstacles aside, we still have to respond to Jesus’ call to minister to those who are considered the outcasts of society,” says Dr. Alan Wright, an infectious diseases specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “It is clear that Christ, with his ministry among lepers, prostitutes, and demon-possessed people, never discriminated based on disease, sexuality, or action.”
“I’ve never seen such devoted friends in my life,” the father of a dying AIDS patient told the members of the AIDS Resource Ministry [ARM]. From the time David was diagnosed with AIDS in the summer of 1985, ARM was there for him.
ARM is an outreach of Desert Stream, a ministry to help homosexuals come out of the gay lifestyle, and part of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Santa Monica, California. ARM had its beginnings when eight concerned Christians, including David, met together for a year to seek—through prayer and educating themselves about the disease—God’s direction on how to minister to those with AIDS.
Ministering, to David, was to teach the people a lot and help prepare them for their extensive ministry, which currently includes 20 volunteers, a case manager, a training program, and an intercessors group to support in prayer those doing the hands-on ministry. Since ARM began, about 10 of those they have been ministering to have died, and all had accepted or recommited their lives to Christ.
When David became too weak to live alone he moved in with Mark, one of the ARM volunteers. The garage sale they organized for him became a party that brought the ARM group and David closer. Mark helped him with diet, made him meals, took him places.
As the disease advanced, David’s mind started to give way. He would wander in and out of reality, almost getting hit by a car once. And because he would also get paranoid in the apartment, he had to be watched constantly.
The ARM folk prayed for and with David daily. After a particularly powerful time of prayer, his symptoms were reduced dramatically over a period of a week. “We thought we had licked it,” says Carol Lovlin, a close friend. But it wasn’t to be.
Four weeks before David’s death, his father flew out from Florida to be with him. David had been experiencing much inner healing through the counseling and prayers of those in the Vineyard. His father’s visit would prove to be a time of reconciliation.
For his whole life, David had been estranged from his dad. It had been two years since he had last seen his father. And even that had been a brief and uncomfortable time. But while in California, David’s father slept in his room every night. His dad also received support and counseling from the ARM team.
David began feeling better and returned to Florida with his dad for two weeks. During that time, they did a lot of things together, working on the house, painting, and cutting wood. “Because David’s mental state was like that of a little boy, he and his father were able, in a sense, to relive the childhood relationship they should have had, but didn’t,” says Jonathan Hunter, who directs the ARM program.
When David had a relapse, they flew back to California. “They both came back changed,” says Lovlin. David’s father even said he was willing to sell his own home if he had to to take care of his son. “I’m so happy I had that time with David,” his father said.
The ARM folks rejoiced at the healing between David and his father. They also felt that their prayers for physical healing contributed to the peacefulness of David’s death. “He looked so good when he died,” says Lovlin. For those who’ve seen the ravages of the disease, that’s a miracle.
Though 74 percent of the cases today are homosexuals and bisexual men, and 17 percent are IV drug abusers, heterosexual cases are increasing rapidly. In March 1986 about 2 percent of the recorded cases were heterosexual. Today the number is 4 percent; in 1991 it is expected to be over 6 percent or more.
“AIDS is not a gay disease,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Alan Wright. “Not only may the wives and sexual contacts of bisexual men or former homosexuals get AIDS, but adolescents with multiple sexual contacts will also be at risk of contracting AIDS.” Because of the high level of promiscuity among teenagers, they may be the next group to be hit hard by the disease.
Also in the nongay, non-drug addict category are the over 500 babies born with AIDS and the over 700 transfusion recipients of contaminated blood. Over 90 percent of all hemophiliacs have a positive AIDS antibody test. (Those in the last two groups got the vims before the nation’s blood supply was screened for AIDS antibodies.)
Jessica Hazard and her twin sister, Rebeka, were born 12 weeks premature in 1984. During one of many transfusions, Jessica received some AIDS-contaminated blood that caused her to develop ARC, which was diagnosed when she was 20 months old. Jessica was Minnesota’s first pediatric AIDS case.
At first Jessica’s parents, Dwight and Dorothy, tried to keep it a secret—at the recommendation of the doctors. But the strain of bearing the burden alone convinced them to risk telling their church family. Apprehensively, they met with their pastor, Jim Cook of Oak Grove Presbyterian Church.
After they told him, Cook immediately set into motion a plan of action to inform the church. “Jessica’s illness happened soon after Ryan White’s ordeal of being barred from attending school in Indiana,” says Cook. “And as a church, we wanted to show there were other ways for people to react.”
He first sent out a letter to the entire congregation informing them of Jessica’s condition and their need to support the family. Then he set up a series of AIDS education sessions staffed by medical experts, so that from the onset fears about the baby’s condition and the risks to the other children could be dealt with.
The Hazards’ risk paid off. The members of Oak Grove’s congregation of 1,500 rallied around Jessica and her family. They gave money, cooked meals, held Jessica during Sunday morning worship, and babysat the Hazards’ other two children. “If we had accepted everyone’s offer to babysit our kids, we wouldn’t have seen them till they were 18,” says Dorothy Hazard.
The first and only real point of tension came when, in order to comply with Minnesota’s state health regulations—and also give the congregation time to understand the disease—Jessica was barred from the nursery. Wrote Cook in an AIDS update to the congregation: “As soon as possible, our prudent and conservative policy of withholding nursery care from [Jessica] will be reversed.”
Jessica never saw the inside of the nursery again. She died on October 14, 1986, without ever having talked or walked.
At the press conference after Jessica’s death, the Hazards were asked if they would sue the hospital. They said no. A few months later they explained why: “Without Christ, we would have been bitter and seeking retribution. And we were told we had a good chance to win a suit. But because we experienced so much of God’s grace for us through our church, we felt no desire to crucify anyone.”
Outside the church after Jessica’s memorial service, several people released a multicolored cloud of 500 balloons as an expression of hope and celebration.
As they watched the balloons disappear into the distance, a banner made by a ninth grader hung in the quiet sanctuary. It read, “Love grows here.”
Andrés Tapia is assistant editor of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s U Magazine (formerly HIS). His report on aids in HIS won him a 1987 Higher Goals Award from the Evangelical Press Association.
“We need the person with AIDS to minister to us as much, if not more, than they need us,” Rev. Carl Meirose, executive director of Chicago’s AIDS Pastoral Care Network, points out. “To see their faith in the midst of tremendous suffering, especially because of their young age, is wonderful to behold.”
The voices of two Christians who have AIDS embody the truth of Meirose’s statement. Let them speak:
• Vietnam veteran Jim Jackson, 38, is a Christian who has AIDS. During the last three months he has had continued bouts with chills, headaches, 101-degree temperatures, fatigue, and severe weight loss.
“Which is better?,” he asks. “Experiencing physical healing and facing more years of the torment of sexual temptation? Or dying and being with Jesus? In a way—and I know this sounds crazy—I’m thankful for the disease. It has drawn me closer to the Lord.
“I’ve had a lot of things to deal with: the guilt of maybe having passed on AIDS to someone else; fear of how those in the church are going to react; anger toward myself for doing drugs and being promiscuous; anger at whoever gave it to me.
“But I really can’t blame anyone else but myself. I’m reaping my own judgment now. I hope people will be able to see faith in action in my death.” In the meantime, Jim continues to share his faith with the people he comes in contact with.
• Wayne Shirley also loved to share his faith. Six months after becoming a Christian and leaving the gay lifestyle, he was diagnosed as having AIDS. But his joy during his stay at the hospital affected the whole ward at San Francisco General Hospital. “We’ve never experienced anything like this before,” they said of Wayne. “Whenever we walked into his room there was such peace. We knew God was there,” non-Christians said. His roommate became a Christian and was baptized. And at Wayne’s death, half the staff on his ward showed up. “I’m so excited about where I’m going,” he said a few minutes before he died.
By Andrés Tapia.
How Churches Can Get Involved
If a church wants to get involved in ministry to those with AIDS, here are a few guidelines from those already doing it.
• Educate the congregation. “Our biggest pastoral weapon is education,” says Father Carl Meirose of Chicago’s AIDS Pastoral Care Network. Education helps people in the congregation sort out fact from hysterical rumor and allows them to be more effective and compassionate.
The Red Cross’s films were recommended by several who minister to AIDS patients, as long as the films are supplemented with a Christian perspective after viewing. The surgeon general’s report can also be obtained by calling 1-800-342-AIDS or writing AIDS, P.O. Box 14252, Washington, D.C. 20044.
• Develop a church policy statement. The nursery, the serving and cooking of food, premarital counseling requirements, the Communion cup, confidentiality, and the baptismal tank all become issues when people consider having those with AIDS in their churches. Involving congregation members in drafting the policy, as did Pastor Dennis Sawyer at the Philadelphia Church in Chicago, works best. Wording should convey both compassion for those with AIDS and an understanding that the fear of AIDS is great.
• Provide practical help. Since a person with AIDS often tires easily, simple tasks such as cleaning or cooking become a challenge. Another important area of need is short-or long-term housing, since many of those with AIDS are destitute due to unemployment and/or being dropped by their health insurance carrier when they are facing steep medical bills.
• Provide care for the care givers. In Hinsdale, Illinois, Common Ground’s AIDS ministry group dissolved after the deaths of the first five AIDS patients they were ministering to. The volunteers were so devastated by the deaths that they were not able to continue. In Santa Monica, California, Jonathan Hunter’s AIDS Resource Ministry (ARM) provides a variety of support services to its volunteers—including people who pray for them, time off, and training in ministering to the dying. They have also found that going in twos to visit the AIDS patient is less draining for the volunteers.
• Pray with and for the person withAIDS. Like many terminally ill patients, those with AIDS may be open to talk and pray about faith, God, and the afterlife. Other items for prayer are emotional and physical healing, the need for more volunteers, a change in society’s view of those with AIDS, and a cure for the disease.
• Minister compassionately and sensitively. “If we cannot set aside moral judgment, we must remove ourselves from this area of ministry,” said Sid Mohn at a clergy seminar at Thorek Hospital in Chicago. Father Meirose adds, “The phrases we use are important. Say ‘person with AIDS’ rather than ‘AIDS victim’ and ‘living with AIDS’ instead of ‘dying with AIDS.’ ” He also warns about getting on someone’s case about his or her lifestyle: “At the deathbed of someone dying of emphysema you don’t talk about all the cigarettes he smoked.”
• Minister to the family. Many families of those with AIDS have found themselves abandoned by friends who have found out about their son’s or daughter’s condition. These parents usually also have to deal with the double whammy of finding out their son is gay and that he’s dying. Ministering to the patient’s close friends also raises difficult pastoral issues.
• Define the church’s view of homosexuality. Disagreement among Christians abounds on different aspects of this issue. While evangelicals agree that homosexual activity is sinful, there is nothing approaching consensus on questions such as “Can a homosexual orientation be changed?” or “Is homosexuality a psychiatric disorder?” To avoid much pain and confusion, those who want to minister to persons with AIDS should resolve their theology and philosophy about homosexuality before starting.
Ultimately, what does ministry to those with AIDS require? One Chicago man with AIDS answered, “A hug once in awhile would be nice.”
By Andrés Tapia.
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