Welcoming Angels Through Computerized AIDS Ministries
by Nancy A. Carter
New World Outlook, July-August 1996
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1-2)
New York City: March 16, 1996: Winter has been long and hard-- marked by destructive storms and record snowfall. At New York's Laguardia Airport, I am boarding a flight for Charlotte, North Carolina. In the evening, I will participate in a memorial service for Debbi Hood Johnson, a friend I never met face to face.
I knew Debbi through writing private and public mail to her on CAM, which is an acronym for Computerized AIDS Ministries. CAM is an electronic bulletin board service (BBS). It is sponsored by Health and Welfare Ministries. As the BBS's sysop (system operator), I have supervised the daily activity on the board since it opened in June 1993.
Debbi joined CAM later that year, after her husband, BJ, died of AIDS. Through interacting with others on the BBS, she found comfort for her grief as she discovered a world community of outreach and support. Later she became a leader on CAM and of an AIDS "chat room" on America on Line.
In 1995, Debbi herself was diagnosed with HIV. We expected she would die of AIDS someday. Instead, on February 24, 1996, about a month after her 42nd birthday, she was killed in a car accident. Her untimely death stunned the many people whom she had touched.
I am honored to have been invited to preach at Debbi's service. I have not met face to face any of the people in Charlotte who have planned the service. One, Doug Wensil, is a member of CAM. Another person is Debbi's longtime friend Karen Smith.. Earlier, Karen and I shared drafts of the service via e-mail (electronic mail, a way of sending letters typed on computers via BBSs or the Internet).
Ministry on the Internet
Often the media depict the Internet as a dangerous place, full of pornography, sexual predators, and other evil things and people. Some critics have claimed that the Internet separates people and destroys community. Popular movies, such as "The Net" (1995), and recent news reports have helped to sustain this image.
Like any form of communication, the Internet can be used for good or bad purposes. One should take reasonable personal precautions when interacting with people online, just as one would when meeting any stranger. Children and teenagers must be monitored not only for their own safety but also their parents' peace of mind. For some, the Internet triggers addictive behavior and creates interpersonal distance. For others, it opens up new ways to socialize and gain support in time of crisis.
CAM is an example of positive use of the Internet: a new form of community-building. Its purpose is to provide Christian hospitality, as expressed in a the Health and Welfare Ministries congregational program: "A Covenant to Care." Says the covenant: "If you a person living with HIV/AIDS or a loved one of a person with AIDS, you are welcome here." CAM has offered hospitality not only to persons living with AIDS (PLWAs) and their loved ones but to all who have signed on and agreed to participate in its purpose of HIV/AIDS ministry and education.
When CAM opened in June 1993, Health and Welfare Ministries knew it was offering an important new information service-- one that would include spiritual and theological resources for AIDS ministry. For many users, CAM has been and will always be just that-- an information service. They do not interact with others on the BBS. Instead, they get facts about AIDS or materials for AIDS ministry from the "library." They also read information in " forums" (public space for posting electronic articles or letters) such as AIDS Data, AIDS 101, or Medical. Using computer and modem, information-seekers call CAM by phone directly from the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico. From all over the world, they access us through the Internet.
A Support Community
Still Health and Welfare Ministries did not envision the extent to which BBS would become a support community. CAM added this facet to its ministry in response to expressed needs. Early on, a PLWA, who identified himself by the name "Stylist," asked Health and Welfare Ministries to create a forum that he could feel comfortable writing in. CAM had forums on pastoral care for United Methodists involved in AIDS. Why not have a forum for people living with AIDS? As a result of his request, the Living with AIDS forum was created. Stylist, (who died of AIDS-related causes in 1994) became its first volunteer forum-operator.
The BBS is a "CAM-munity," even a lifeline-- for people who are homebound or isolated in other ways, as by living in an area where it is not safe to reveal that one is HIV positive. Some have said that CAM has literally saved their lives by preventing suicide, providing life-saving information about AIDS prevention, or linking them with people who can help them.
Within a few months of CAM's existence, I realized that some people were not only writing back and forth to each other electronically but were also sending cards, calling, and meeting each other face to face. Mothers who had lost sons to AIDS were sending PLWAs care packages of home-made goodies. PLWAs were helping these mothers, new to the online world, to learn how to navigate CAM.
The Electronic Church
Before I completely grasped what was really happening on CAM, a West Coast reporter aptly named it-- the "Electronic Church on the Information Superhighway." For some, CAM truly was their church or spiritual community. Some members looked to me as their pastor. CAM helped inspire others to to search for a church. For example, Richard B. Cory of Virginia has joined a United Methodist Church that welcomed him and his wife Cathie-- who is HIV positive-- and his son Alex-- who has AIDS.
As I fly to North Carolina, I think about my journey with CAM. Today I am performing another significant pastoral role-- a memorial service.
Suddenly I remember that I forgot to ask Doug Wensil he looks like! We had been so distracted with the details of the service and our own grief processes that we forgot to make plans about where to meet at the airport. I hope that he has downloaded the GIF (electronic picture) of me that is on CAM.
I pin a red ribbon on my jacket, assuming it will help Doug identify me. Debb loved the red ribbon. In mid-1994, she wrote "I Wear a Red Ribbon," which she posted in the Memorials forum on CAM. It tells of a number of people for whom she wore the red ribbon and of the her valuing of Matthew 25:35-46 ("I was sick and you visited me"). Health and Welfare Ministries published her statement in the HIV/AIDS Ministries Focus Paper #25 (1994) and also distributed the paper electronically. Much to our surprise, soon Debbi was receiving notes of appreciation via e-mail from all over the world!
CAM opened its doors to even more people in mid-1995. We made the BBS reachable by telnet (a way to log on to CAM through the Internet) and FTP (a way to get informational files and computer programs from CAM's library through the Internet). We also opened our World Wide Web (WWW) site for CAM.
Health and Welfare Ministries has received notes of appreciation for the all of the resources it provides on the World Wide Web, particularly those on spirituality, ministry, and HIV/AIDS. Hundreds of people log on to CAM's web pages each day. Some write to say how moved they are that a mainline church cares about people with AIDS and that they are touched by the personal stories and worship resources provided on the site.
Angels in Disguise
Charlotte, NC: March 16, 1996: The airplane touches down. Doug and I find each other easily, despite our lack of descriptions. I notice that flowers are blooming at the airport, but it does not seem like spring.
Doug and I go to a small restaurant near his home for some homemade Southern cooking. As we step out of the car, an elderly woman about 80 years old approaches us. She is carrying a cardboard tray of small homemade angel dolls, selling them for $5 a piece. With desperation in her voice, she speaks of the money she needs to pay the hospital for life support that her daughter is on. I buy an angel and tuck it in my purse. She thanks me profusely for my token effort.
During the week, I have been writing the sermon for Debbi's service, using her favorite scripture from Matthew 25:31-46. This passage is part of a scriptural tradition of hospitality-- a tradition of welcoming of strangers who may be angels or the Christ in disguise. When I used to preach on a weekly basis, I realized that, during my sermon preparation time that the scriptural message often came to me in embodied real-life form. I see this woman as one of those revelations.
Debbi's friend Karen told me that people from many backgrounds would come to her memorial service. Now I see for myself the variety of people Debbi touched. Men and women, Black and White, young and old, gay and straight, churched and unchurched, HIV positive and HIV negative-- all enter the sacred space. Each is given a red ribbon.
For an hour, we worship God and celebrate the life of Debbi Hood Johnson. All of us come to know Debbi better as we share what her life and ministry has meant to us.
Families come in different forms. Debbi called her North Carolina friends and her electronic community her "family of choice." And so it is. We who have gathered together to remember her during the past 24 hours are her family.
New York City: April 23, 1996: Spring has finally come, though only a few days ago. Daffodils and tulips are in full bloom together. On my shelf sits the little angel doll that I bought from the elderly woman. I think of the love involved in the making of that angel.
We entertain angels-- or even the Christ-- without knowing it. I wonder what angels have dialedup Computerized AIDS Ministries Bulletin Board Service today.
From New World Outlook Magazine, July-August 1996. "Welcoming Angels" won two UMAC (United Methodist Association of Communications) Certificates of Merit in 1996 for (1) writing-- feature story (2) design-- feature story in a national United Methodist magazine. The original angel line-art was created by Elizabeth Howard and colored by Elise Malsch.
The Rev. Dr. Nancy A. Carter, a clergy member of New York Annual Conference, was the web system operator for Health & Welfare Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, General Board of Global Ministries when she wrote this story.
Copyright © 1996 New World Outlook Magazine, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church