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Religious Faith Helps Overcome AIDS

by Linda Bloom

December 1, 2004

Four years ago, Richard Cory, a United Methodist from Chesapeake, Va., was struggling to deal with the death of his wife as well as his son's future.

Both his wife and son had AIDS.

Today, the religious faith that helped sustain him during that period has led to a new marriage and a new vocation.

Cory's 18-year-old son, Alex, is in good health, has graduated from high school and is studying computer programming at a technical school in Virginia Beach, Va. And within a year's time, Cory met his future wife - a United Methodist pastor - and got married, lost his longtime engineering job, enrolled in seminary himself and was appointed as lay pastor of his first church.

"There certainly have been some challenges, but God is good . . . all the time," he told United Methodist News Service.

Cory, now 47, had such a whirlwind courtship with his wife, then the Rev. Penny Pugh, that it "really shocked her church," he said. The pastor of St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Portsmouth, Va., she was a widow whose husband had committed suicide a decade earlier.

They met through E-Harmony.com, an Internet matchmaking service started by a psychologist. They went on their first date on June 27, 2003, and were married exactly three months later.

From the beginning, he said, they felt compatible as a couple. "Our marriage is beyond either of our wildest dreams," he added. "We believe that each of us had the need to go through a lot of the struggles and problems that we had in order for us to be together now and to support each other now."

They share the St. Andrew's parsonage with Alex and Penny's 15-year-old son, Steven Pugh. She also has another son, Joshua Pugh, 22, who is married and serving in the Army at Fort Stewart, Ga.

When Cory's first wife, Catherine, gave birth to Alex in 1986, she received a blood transfusion. Two years later, it was discovered that both were infected with the HIV virus. She died on Nov. 19, 2000, as the result of liver problems brought on by AZT, her AIDS medication.

Alex Cory has not been hospitalized since just before Christmas in 2001, and that illness was thought to be viral and not related to AIDS, his father said. In addition to a daily dose of pills, he has been injected twice daily with Fuzeon, a new class of drug fusion inhibitors, for the past two years.

The biggest problem with the drug is that the skin becomes tender at the injection point. "Though it causes him some discomfort, I don't want to take him off of it until they get something better," Cory said.

Other side effects of a lifetime of AIDS include high cholesterol and osteoporosis. But according to Cory, his son's immune system remains in good shape. "As long as the T-cell count is high, his immune system is healthy," he explained.

Cory's layoff from his engineering job in February became an opportunity to pursue a dream deferred. About seven years ago, he had applied to take online classes with Asbury Theological Seminary. At the time, however, his wife and son were both sick, and he was working 60 hours a week. "It was just overwhelming," he recalled. "I ended up withdrawing, although I was very heartbroken over that."

This time, he considered his options. His wife was happy with her church and needed to stay in the area to be close to her elderly parents. Her job provided a salary and the parsonage, and he had some savings. After consulting with other pastors and the district superintendent, Cory decided the time was right and started a class in May at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Now he is a full-time student and takes classes in the evenings and on weekends, despite the 200-mile round-trip drive to the seminary. He also serves as lay pastor of the tiny Indiana United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, originally built as a Native American mission church and still headquarters for the Nansemond tribe. "The chief of the Nansemond Indians is an active member of my congregation," Cory added.

Cory, who expects to become a licensed local pastor next year, has no doubt about pursuing a career in full-time ministry. "My experiences at seminary and as a lay pastor have only served to give me confirmation that this is my calling."

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Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.