HIV Victim Pleads for Compassion : Churches: Mary Fisher, who replaced Earvin (Magic) Johnson on National Commission on AIDS, addresses Van Nuys congregation.


She stood at a pulpit Sunday, a tiny woman stricken with the AIDS virus, sharing her anguish much as she did in front of millions on television last summer at the Republican National Convention.

But now, 44-year-old Mary Fisher--who has tested positive for HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus--preached a sermon that, she said, too few congregations want to hear:

Churches across America need to stop persecuting AIDS and HIV victims and start comforting them with compassion and grace.

"You who are here, in God's house, surely you have been surprised by grace in your own lives," Fisher told a congregation of about 400, including her mother and two small sons, ages 5 and 3, at the Church of the Valley in Van Nuys. "All that I ask of you--perhaps all that God asks of you--is that you show it to others."

By "others," Fisher meant herself--recently appointed to replace Earvin (Magic) Johnson on the National Commission on AIDS--and nearly 2 million other Americans who "do not so much recover from this grief as learn to live with it."

"For the HIV/AIDS community in America, the voice of God heard from communities of faith has been terribly muted," she said, reading from a prepared text. "Temples should have raised high the roof beams to bring them in; churches should have shouted messages of grace from the rooftop.

"But what most members of the HIV/AIDS family have heard is whispers about their morality and the hope that--like modern-day lepers--they will not get too close. And so the peculiar grief has grown, fed by shame and ignorance, stigma and rejection."

Their grief has magnified, Fisher said, because AIDS had surfaced in America within the gay community.

"Old patterns of discrimination came to life with new brutality," she said. "Traditional sources of comfort--the home and the church--became, instead, new tribunals of judgment. Parents rejected children . . . voices rang out from pulpits saying the virus was God's idea, speculating that HIV was divine retribution . . . not until the virus jumped all social fences, putting all of us at risk, did the nation respond."

Few congregations could have been more receptive to Fisher's message. The Church of the Valley's membership includes not only a broad ethnic and cultural mix but also three members who themselves have tested HIV-positive, the Rev. Brian Daily, the assistant pastor, said after the service.

Moreover, church member Dana Landers told the congregation shortly before Fisher spoke that he has been HIV-positive for three years. And the widow of a church member who died of AIDS complications exchanged hugs and pleasantries with Fisher, a West Palm Beach, Fla., resident who went public about her illness in February, saying that she had contracted the virus from her ex-husband, a purported intravenous drug user.

Fisher warmed up to her audience by lightheartedly reminding everyone that she had grown up a Jew, near Detroit. "My parents encouraged me to adopt lofty goals," she said. "Preaching sermons in Christian congregations was not one of them."

The worshipers burst into laughter, then listened raptly as Fisher told them that she at first hesitated about accepting the invitation from a church member to speak.

"But someone close to me," she said, "and close to your tradition said, 'Well, Mary, if they'd invited Jesus to preach, they'd have gotten someone just like you: A spokesperson for a misunderstood cause, raised in a good Jewish family, with strong Christian sympathies.' "

In the end, she urged the worshipers to join the AIDS community's "struggles with injustice and violence . . ."

"Should anyone ask you why, explain that you are merely continuing an ancient tradition," she said. " . . . Grace will go with you. And joy will follow you home."

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