As AIDS Casts Shadow of Death, More Churches Find Compassion : Religion: Now that disease has a human face, barriers of prejudice are breaking down. Congregations are more likely to provide comfort.


A giant cross hovers over the front lawn of the sprawling First Baptist Church complex--the bowling alley, the restaurants, the sanctuary nestled amid hundreds of yards of red carpet.

This is an ultra-ultra-ultra conservative church, "and you can add another ultra to that," said the Rev. Bill Heston.

But when a popular choir member named Troy came down with AIDS, even the "old coots" had to think twice. Today, First Baptist and its nearly 20,000 members offer six AIDS-care teams, helping people with the disease.

"When AIDS took on a face at First Baptist, then it could no longer be avoided," Heston said. "It became a person that we care about, that we loved, and AIDS is secondary."

Slowly, over the last couple of years--as worshipers find the courage to reveal their struggles with the great disease of our age--a new awareness is growing in the churches, AIDS advocates say.

In the early years of AIDS, many of these same churches had succumbed to apathy, or fear, or disgust, and had turned their backs on the disease and its sufferers. The doctrine of unconditional love did not seem to apply to the homosexuals and drug abusers who were most often infected.

But now, about 1,800 churches have AIDS relief and education programs, making the religious community the second-largest provider of services to people with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome outside the government, according to the National AIDS Interfaith Network in Washington.

And as Easter, 1993, approaches, some observe remarkable parallels in the religious response to AIDS in the United States with events 2,000 years ago.

"That's exactly the story of Jesus Christ--suffering, misjudged, dying young and coming back from the dead," said the Rev. David Jaeger, coordinator of AIDS ministry for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

No one is saying the process of acceptance has been easy, or complete.

"I don't care if it's a liberal congregation or a conservative congregation, people aren't solely religious," said ethicist Earl Shelp. "If they only had on their religious hat, they would look at this one way."

The Rev. Scott Allen, the son of former Southern Baptist Convention President Jimmie Allen, was an idealistic young minister at the First Christian Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he learned that his wife and two children had been infected via a blood transfusion during her first pregnancy.

Devastated, Allen went to his pastor for support, and was asked for his resignation. Back in their hometown in Dallas, Allen said, six churches turned the family away before he finally turned his back on the church.

"What I had seen is the churches reflect society more than the Gospel," he said. "I just had to walk away."

Many people with AIDS, and their families, still suffer in silence.

"My son lived and died with AIDS and I didn't feel I could tell my church," one congregant told the Rev. Howard Warren, a member of the advisory board of the Presbyterian AIDS Network, when he visited a church in Graydon, Ind. He hears the same plaint each time he visits a church in the Midwest.

Warren, who himself waited two years before disclosing that he had the virus, said the fear extends throughout the church.

"Even people in our system are afraid that if it is found out in our system or in our church, they would just be anathema," Warren said. "The silence of the church is devastating."

But slowly the barriers of fear and prejudice are breaking down as people with AIDS and their loved ones come forward.

"It's touching us where we live," said the Rev. Winton Hill, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an inner-city neighborhood in Stamford, Conn. "It's now our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our daughters, our sons."

And churches are beginning to respond.

At the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, Canon Frederick Mitchell invited 45 close colleagues to a professional meeting on AIDS eight years ago; 11 showed up. Today, all the heads of black denominations endorsed the National Black Church Day of Healing Prayer for People with AIDS March 17.

And the Rev. Molly McGreevy of St. Luke in the Fields Episcopal Church in New York is no longer "jokingly referred to as the funeral queen of Greenwich Village"--churches that had refused to bury people with AIDS are now relenting.

In Houston, religious communities of every denomination have become among the most active in the nation in dealing with AIDS.

Under the coordination of the Foundation for Interfaith Research and Ministry, more than 65 churches have established care teams that have helped 1,100 men, women and children with the virus.

The Rev. Ray Highfield of Christian Tabernacle Church sold his house and moved into an apartment above a garage next to a residence for homeless people with AIDS started by the Pentecostal church.

"We feel this is where Christ would be involved," the stocky Highfield said as he took a break from sawing to finish a back room. "It's hard not to have pride"-- he rapped one hand on wood--"to look out and see two pews of HIV people."

Eleanor Munger's calling from God to AIDS ministry was confirmed in a series of religious visions. The retired preschool teacher said she was awakened for three consecutive evenings at 3 a.m., with the vision of God's call so vivid the last night that she went to open the door to her home.

Standing at little over 5 feet and dressed with a shawl around her shoulders over a long peasant-style dress, the 81-year-old Munger chats easily with the doctors and relatives inside Omega House, the AIDS hospice she helped found down the street from a high school in Houston. But she remembers the uncertainty the gay community had about allowing any woman to work with people with AIDS at first.

She persisted, and it was during a visit to a terminally ill person at the county hospital that she vowed to start an AIDS hospice. "They told him he had to go home. A big tear came down his cheeks. 'I don't have a home,' he said."

Munger's eyes filled up as she recounted how she supported herself outside the hospital, crying in frustration. "I decided I'd better get up and do something about it instead of watering the grass under the portico," she said.

She went to all the churches and synagogues in the community, and was turned down by only two.

Over and over, AIDS volunteers told of needing that initial human contact to confront their own fears.

The Rev. Millard Eiland of South Main Baptist Church, a lanky, well-dressed Southern Baptist minister in his 50s, calmly discussed over breakfast how he has become comfortable propping himself in bed watching television with a person in the final stages of AIDS. At first, he said, he could not resist his impulse--however irrational--to wash his hands after visiting someone with the virus.

"It's a process of growth," Eiland said. "Sometimes, I think we're too hard on the church. The church is, after all, an aggregation of humans."

In Minneapolis, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit hesitated when a young man with AIDS stretched out his hand after a pastoral visit. Since that "terrible moment," he has buried 22 people with AIDS and spoken at synagogues around the nation as a co-chairman of the Joint Committee on AIDS of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Edelheit said the handshake was "reaching across the threshold of a social barrier. I think we all have to get through it."

As they work with people with AIDS, many religious individuals report having discovered the truths that theologians from various traditions have passed down through the ages: The way people face death can be the greatest source of hope and religious truth for the living.

"I've never worked with anything where I've kept running into more heroic people," said the Rev. Lee Walker of Christ Episcopal Church, a stately complex of stone edifices in affluent Greenwich, Conn.

At a recent retreat for people with AIDS, he said, patients said the disease was the best thing that ever happened to them. "I thought, what a stupid thing to say."

But one man went on to explain that he had been doing drugs on the street since he was 11, and his life appeared hopeless. "I was going to die anyway, and now my life is going to have some meaning," the man said.

Other people also have found their salvation in AIDS, Walker said.

"I don't see God as sending this as a punishment to us. I see God reaching down into the pit and offering us a way out," he said. "What I see in AIDS is God's ability to bring resurrection out of crucifixion."

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