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Growing in Compassion

by Nancy A. Carter

Reprinted from New World Outlook, January 1985

In August, 1984, Irma Mathews, a member of Metropolitan-Duane United Methodist Church in New York City, learned that her son, a Vietnam veteran and former drug abuser, had acquired AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). A few months later, the directors of the drug recovery support system which provided housing for him asked Ms. Mathews to take in her son, saying it would be best for him to be home. He wanted to stay in the program. It was a difficult time; there was no separate room for him, and she was angry because of his past drug abuse, not because of his illness. "Why AIDS came, I don't know," she says. She prayed for him and went to church for solace; sometimes she went to church to forget what was happening at home. Her advice to anyone who learns that a family member has AIDS is that the person needs to know that he or she is loved, regardless of the disease. She gave her son her love but fears that she did not give all the support he needed. He died on July 11, 1985.

This story and others like it point up an increasing urgency for churches, particularly those in large cities where AIDS is concentrated, to reach out both within and beyond their congregations and minister to the spiritual , emotional, and physical needs of the broad range of people affected by the epidemic.

Bishop Woodie W. White, of the Central Illinois Area of the UMC, has written in his area's edition of The United Methodist Reporter that individuals suffering from the disease pose a critical test for the love and ministry of the church.

Health and Welfare Ministries

At its annual meeting in October, the Health and Welfare Ministries Program Department of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church adopted a position paper on AIDS and the Compassionate Ministry of the Church, dealing with such areas as research and health education, local church ministries, and concern for human and civil rights. Staff of the department was asked to get involved in four areas:

Annual Conference Actions

Recognizing a call to ministry, at least four United Methodist annual conferences have passed resolutions on AIDS. Rocky Mountain and California-Nevada were the first to speak out. In 1983, the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference voted to "commit ourselves to greater understanding of AIDS, demonstrating through prayer and action, each in our own way, a ministry of caring concern to the victims of the new deadly disease." Its "special committee" is now considering a referral that the Colorado AIDS project become a conference advance special. In 1985, the North Georgia and New York annual conferences adopted resolutions on AIDS. North Georgia called for "a ministry of love and comfort and reconciliation and salvation witness." New York resolved that the conference, "its organizations and local churches seek our ways it can be in ministry with people with AIDS, their families, and friends."

These four conferences include two of the cities most affected by the epidemic. New York City has been the worst-hit; more than one third of the total cases in the United States are there. San Francisco has about ten percent of the cases. Numbers are increasing in Denver and Atlanta, as they are across the nation.

There is at least one community-based service organization dealing with the disease in each of these cities. The heads of three of the organizations are clergy. In addition, other clergy and laity are volunteers for these groups. Jeremy Landau, on special United Methodist appointment to do AIDS ministry, directs the AIDS Project of San Francisco East Bay Area. In Denver, Julian Rush, associate pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church , is the director of the Colorado AIDS Project which is housed in the church. Ken South, a United Church of Christ minister, is in charge of AID (not AIDS) Atlanta. A number of clergy were on the original board of the AIDS Resource Center of New York City. Work done by these organizations includes support of persons with AIDS, their families and loved ones and also education of high-risk groups as well as the general public. (People with AIDS, often referred to as PWAs, prefer to be thought of as persons first. They do not like to be called "AIDS victims." Many now say they like simply to be called by their names, with no label.)

Local Church Ministries

Compassionate ministries local churches are performing include housing, support groups, and education. Two united Methodist Churches in New York City, which participate in ministry are Washington Square and Metropolitan-Duane, racially mixed but predominantly white, small congregations. Washington Square, whose minister is Martha V. Morrison, makes its sanctuary available for memorial services for people who have died from AIDS and provides a meeting room for a support group of AIDS care givers. In Metropolitan-Duane Church, a yoga exercise group for people with AIDS and their loved ones meets. It was started by Sam Alford, a member of the church, described by pastor David VerNooy as "a warm lively guy" who sees religious life as central to his healing. Mr. Alford, who as AIDS, stresses that spiritual support is the most important need, but it is not usually addressed by hospitals and community organizations. The church has a unique opportunity to minister in this area.

In Denver, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays sponsors a support group for parents of gay men with AIDS, which meets at St. Paul's Church. The church provides support to this group, but does not run it.

A more difficult but sorely-needed ministry is the provision of shelter for people with AIDS. Many are thrown out of their apartments when people learn that they have the disease; others do not have the finances to pay for their housing after they are sick; still others need individual care but are not sick enough to be hospitalized. The Rev. William James, who was for many years pastor of the very large predominantly-black Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church in New York City until his retirement this year, remembers that housing was a problem for one member who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. People were afraid. He was taken in by his mother. Some people are not lucky enough to have a loving family which has room to house them and care for them.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York is responding to the need for housing, as have community organizations such as the AIDS resource Center, AID Atlanta, and Shanti, San Francisco. In August, 1985, the Archdiocese announced that is was opening a shelter for people with AIDS. The program is to be run in cooperation with the city by Mother Teresa's Missionary Sisters and other religious groups. Indicative of the problems caused by public fear of the diocese, parents of children in a Roman Catholic school next door to the vacant convent in Manhattan selected for the shelter objected and that site had to be abandoned. The Archdiocese and Mother Teresa are committed to running the shelter, but as of this writing are dealing with helping AIDS sufferers on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, churches can offer other services. Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco offers pastoral care and referrals to the many support organizations in the city. A number of the church's members are volunteers for those organizations. Christine Shiber, pastor of the small congregation, says the church's organist died of AIDS in June 1984. She conducted the memorial service for him.

The Role of the Pastor

Often the pastor is one of the first in a congregation to learn that someone has AIDS. Bill James remembers his first contact was in 1983, when a woman in the church told him her grandson had AIDS. Mr. James visited him at the hospital, only to discover that the young man was kept in isolation and visitors were to wear hospital masks, gowns and gloves. This kind of treatment can be depressing to a person with AIDS and frightening to visitors, but wearing hospital clothing helps protect the patient from catching air-borne diseases from visitors.

The pastor's care is most important. Sam Alford especially remembers calling David VerNooy one time when he had a fever and thought he was about to die. VerNooy came over, visited with him, prayed, and laid his hands on his head and heart. The fever went away.

Sometimes the minister may be the only person in a congregation who knows. Early in 1984, one clergyman in New York made a decision with the man who had AIDS not to tell the congregation about his illness. He felt the congregation was not prepared for the news and "maybe too afraid" of AIDS. The man was angry about the rejection he was generally experiencing from society but was comforted by the pastoral care he received and to hear about the annual conference's resolution on AIDS.

New York's Washington Square Church, which has lost two members to AIDS, sponsors an AIDS grief support group open to the public. Before deciding to do this, church members attended AIDS educational events at the church and in the community. The church is also doing some hospital advocacy work. The congregation's co-chair of outreach, Edward Weaver, says the epidemic is "an opportunity for the church to reach out and show that it cares."

The Importance of Education

In September, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church called on church officials to develop programs of "prevention, education, and awareness" about AIDS and asked the denomination's Presiding Bishop to lead a national day for prayer and healing for victims of the disease.

Educational events for church people are important. At these, they can learn more about AIDS and human needs. One such event was the "Interfaith Forum on Religion and AIDS" held at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City on February 21, 1985. A panel of Christian and Jewish religious leaders spoke, including Paul Moore, Jr., Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of New York. It was co-sponsored by the religious advisory committee on the AIDS Resource Center.

"Education is the key to stopping the spread of AIDS," says Jerry Johnson, a member of Washington Square United Methodist Church in new York City who works on community education for Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), the major AIDS service organization in the city. he is talking about prevention education. Johnson notes that, with no cure or vaccine in sight, prevention ("risk reduction") is the only means of slowing the epidemic right now.

Most education is now being done by already overloaded service groups. Churches, resourced by these organizations, can play a valuable role in educating both their own members and the general public.

The New World UMC, Garland, Texas, is sponsoring workshops and seminars on AIDS, to sensitize and inform its membership as well as the general community. Local health officers conduct the seminars. As an initial step the church conducted a survey to establish whether church or community members are already involved in AIDS response through local schools, churches, universities, hospitals or on an individual basis.

The next step that the church plans is to persuade state and local health agencies and corporations to organize formal networks of public information, service, and support. New World UMC is prepared to co-sponsor such efforts and to offer church facilities when needed. Pastor Bob Robertson and associate pastor, George N. Malek, are especially active in promoting this program.

Christian Love is Basic

A ministry of Christian love is basic to an AIDS ministry. Including PWAs and their families in congregational activities and prayers is important because so many people irrationally exclude them. Also churches and their pastors should realize that, even though AIDS may seem alien and different from other life-threatening diseases, the one-to-one ministry to be carried out is simpler.

"If we are the Christians we profess to be, now is the time to witness," Sam Alford emphasizes. The following stories are all too common: A woman rejected by friends, because her husband, a high-paid professional, has AIDS; a United Methodist man not invited to a wedding when his friends found out he had AIDS; abandoned AIDS children cared for in hospitals because there are not enough foster parents willing to take them. By assisting such people, churches can help to heal some of the alienation.

As more people become ill and die, the church can play an important healing role in ministering to them and their loved ones. The church will also discover that it too is in need of a ministry of support in order to proceed. As people work with people, some of who have rejected each other, perhaps they can be reconciled. Religious people who have involved themselves have discovered that, although the destruction of human life is horrible and the grief they feel is sometimes unbearable, God continues to sustain both them and the persons who are ill.

Dr. Paul Mickey, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and a former president of Good News, says in the Virginia Advocate that he views a plan of action involving church support of AIDS research as one that should be "uncritically a point of compassion for the church." Mickey believes that although the activities of churches may vary, depending upon need and opportunity, their common role comes back to the biblical charge to minister to those in need. "It's up to God to separate the wheat from the chaff," he says. "We're to do our job of relieving human suffering in whatever ways we can."

Bishop White puts the church's role in similar terms. "All of those for whom Christ died need the loving compassion of the church. Each is a member of some family, someone's son or daughter-- each precious, who perhaps requires the love and acceptance of the Christian community now more than ever before."

He adds: "And I pray that we in the church will not be found lacking when and should these, our brothers and sisters with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, appear at our gates, seeking the ministry and love of the Church."


From New World Outlook magazine, the mission magazine of The United Methodist Church, January 1985, copyright © 1985. Used with permission. For subscription information contact the editor of New World Outlook at 13th floor, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, New York.

When this article was published, Nancy A. Carter was an editor for the General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church. She founded the New York Annual Conference AIDS Task Force in January 1985. This article was the first of many she has written on HIV/AIDS and the church.