Somewhere in the Bronx, a 45-year-old woman with HIV nourishes a dream. Andrena Ingram, who has been HIV positive for seven years, aspires to be a teaching pastor at her Lutheran church. Her passion is simple: "I want to share the promise of God's glory."

Richard Baucom lives about 800 miles west of the Bronx, on bustling Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago. A 36-year-old financial director at a large company, Baucom is one of countless big-city executives climbing the corporate ladder.

Baucom has reaped the benefits of his hard work. He lives in a posh apartment, drives an expensive BMW, and vacations at an Arizona resort.

Richard Baucom and Andrena Ingram come from vastly different worlds, but last August at a camp in rural New York, they both experienced the love of God.

Closer to Jesus

Both attended Birch Family Camp, nestled near the Hudson River in Putnam Valley. Located 90 minutes north of Manhattan, Birch has become a refuge for people whose lives have been turned upside down by HIV—and those who feel called to reach out to them. For one week out of the year, families coping with HIV or AIDS head to the camp for rest and fellowship.

Almost 200 people, mostly mothers with their children, attend Birch for free each summer. The fresh air and open, grassy fields are a welcome respite from the confines of their inner-city addresses. The parents, experiencing a loving community, are able to share their stories with other adults without fear. Their children, constrained at home by neighborhood violence, medical inhibitions, or the fear of being exposed, learn how to play for the first time. Ingram's 7-year-old son, Brezlon, is among them.

Like many women at the camp, Ingram spends some of her time at Birch quietly reflecting on the past. She is unsure of how she contracted HIV, considering that she has had a numerous sexual partners. "I don't know if I got it while performing 'public service' on a street corner or if it was through drugs," she says. "I don't know. It doesn't matter."

What does matter is being able to talk about it. "My husband died of AIDS in 1993," she says. "Until then, it was a big secret." The secret, she says, killed him as much as the disease: "That's what helped take him out of here—the stress of the shame."

After her husband's death, Ingram came clean from drugs and became a Christian. Today she calls herself the "Martin Lutheress" of her congregation. "I work at the constant reformation of my society," she says.

Ingram's joy belies the deadly disease she lives with. She frequently laughs, her tongue ring becoming visible. Her long hair, thick in dreadlocks, falls on her shoulders as she gazes across the campground. She refuses to feel defeated because of her illness. She says people with HIV/AIDS commonly experience stigma and suffering. For many, it deepens their understanding of the sufferings of Christ.

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Span of God's love

Birch camp director Sandee Moore says the entire week is designed to make the experience as uplifting as possible for people with HIV/AIDS. She says, "We've got to get past how they got it and ask, 'How are we helping them deal with it?' "

Baucom found himself wrestling with this question two years ago when he went through a company program called "AIDS in the Workplace." Baucom was hesitant when he first learned of the opportunity to volunteer at Birch.

"I was concerned with how people would perceive me," he says. "I had some pretty narrow thoughts, like, 'If I hang around with gay people, then I'm automatically assumed to be gay,' or 'If I work at this camp, people will think I'll become infected with HIV.' "

Despite his fears, Baucom's faith kept him interested. Born and raised a Southern Baptist, he grew up attending church camps and eventually became a counselor. But Birch, he knew, would be dramatically different from the camps for "rich suburban kids" that he once frequented.

His campers last August consisted of five teenage boys who gave this wealthy businessman insights into their world. While they are not HIV positive, all of their mothers carry the virus.

"We don't talk about it, but we all know," says Lorenzo Montanez, a 15-year-old camper.

Montanez says his friends in the Bronx are unaware that his mother, Liz Zayas, has the virus. "People act different, and you don't want that," he says. "When it comes up at school, I think, 'Wow, my mom has this.' But I don't say anything."

Zayas, whose husband recently left her, says she worries about how her illness affects her son. Consequently they usually do not discuss HIV/AIDS. "I don't want to give him too much to think about," she says. "He's just a kid."

Because Montanez and the other boys have brought so much emotional baggage to camp, they bond quickly. Away from their daily burdens, Baucom's campers are allowed to be kids again—playing tricks on girls, wearing too much cologne, shooting hoops.

At home, these families live in fear of being stigmatized, Baucom says. "But here, so much of everyone's heart is exposed."

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Baucom, his boys, and four other counselors gather around the campfire halfway through the week. It's time to play a game, one leader says. Each person must tear off a portion of tissue from a roll of toilet paper. For each piece of tissue taken, one must share a personal detail.

At first campers reveal only lighthearted details. But soon the setting becomes intimate. Both adults and teens speak of their struggles, guilt, and gratitude for a week in which they can be honest with others.

"I moved away from home to take a big job, and now my parents are growing old," one counselor says. "I feel as if I haven't spent any time with them."

Another confesses, "Last year, I was diagnosed with the virus. I've just started telling people about it this week."

Soon both counselors and campers are crying. A silent compassion hovers over the campfire.

Chris, another camper, picks up a stick and looks into the smoldering flames as the evening closes.

"This is for everything that hurts us," he says quietly, as he tosses the piece of wood into the fire.

Somehow, amid a group plagued by illness and stigma, love and acceptance abound.

Moore says the environment at Birch often causes spiritual issues to surface, even though the camp is not affiliated with a religious group. "People here have faith in something," she says. "It may not have an institutional focus—maybe it's just faith in fellow man."

Baucom knows better. "I'm so aware of God all of the time here," he says. "For someone like me who grew up in the church, you hear about God's love all the time, but a lot of the time that doesn't really have a tangible meaning. Here, I spend five days with strangers, and I feel it's the best I can come to understanding the span of God's love."

No turning back

Memories of Birch will linger for Baucom when he returns to his job. "I don't feel in life that what I'm doing is what I'm intended to do," he says. "I once heard someone say, 'The only things important in life are the things that outlast it.' "

Baucom wants his compassion to one day overshadow the success he has achieved in the business world. "That's what I want my legacy to be," he says, "but I don't know what that will mean." He pauses. "I've still got to figure that out."

Ingram says she has had plenty of time to figure out her direction in life. A few years ago, she sat in jail for participating in a riot. "When I told them I needed to take my medicine, [the guards] found out I had AIDS," she says. "They put me in a separate cell and made me use a separate bathroom. I spent a few days in quiet there, reading the Dialogues of Plato. It spoke of the crime Socrates committed by being himself. He wasn't going to back down."

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Ingram, emboldened by her camp experience, doesn't plan to back down either. Regarding her goal to become a pastor, she says, "I meet with the bishop about it next month."

Postscript: In December 2006, Ingram expects to complete a Master's in Divinity program at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and intends to enter pastoral ministry.

Related Elsewhere

Visit the Birch Family Camp Web site.

Read about a Birch volunteer's experience as a camp counselor.

Lots of organizations partner with Birch. Just this summer Nikon donated several cameras to the camp's photography program.

The Yahoo directory lists other AIDS camps in the U.S.

To learn more about AIDS treatment, prevention, and policy visit the Journal of the American Medical Association's information site.

Previous Christianity Today coverage of AIDS includes:

Pastors as Grave Diggers | Christians hope to break the silence and overcome Asia's prejudice against people with AIDS. (July 28, 2000)
Speaking with Action Against AIDS | A report from the Thirteenth International AIDS Conference. (July 19, 2000)
African Americans Focus on AIDS Outreach | Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS gains observation (March 24, 2000)
Survey of AIDS Infection Among Priests Shocks U.S. Catholics | Kansas City Star says priests dying at much higher rate than American population. (Feb. 8, 2000)
'Sexual Revolution' Speeds Spread of HIV Among Africans | (Feb. 4, 2000)
'Have We Become Too Busy With Death?' | As 4,900 people die each day from AIDS, African Christians are faced with the question. (Feb. 4, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: An Open Letter to the U. S. Black Religious, Intellectual, and Political Leadership Regarding AIDS and the Sexual Holocaust in Africa (Jan. 24, 2000)
Africa: Fidelity Urged to Fight AIDS (July 12, 1999)
I Am the Father of an AIDS Orphan (Nov. 17, 1997)

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