Many of us remember the cultural hysteria that surrounded the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Despite scientific evidence that the virus could only be passed through semen or blood, many people panicked. Those who contracted the disease became pariahs, what Time magazine dubbed a “new class of untouchables,” a prejudice that hampered their medical treatment.
Adding theological insult to injury, intolerant groups of Christians spread the notion that AIDS was a plague visited upon gay people and drug users for their sins. They dared to say such things while cloaking themselves in Christ’s teachings, an aberration that still exists in America.
I was serving a large urban church at the time. One of our vocal members (call him Bill for anonymity’s sake) embraced and espoused this theory of divine retribution. He proof-texted the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah, claiming that God destroyed those cities because of homosexuality rather than inhospitality.
Meanwhile, I knew that HIV/AIDS had touched many people in our congregation through their friends and relatives, but they were reticent to publicly ask for compassion. They feared the stigma rippling through our society.
I talked to these folks and asked a question. Would they be willing to join others in a “coming out” evening, a public forum to share their experiences in solidarity? It would be a chance to counter destructive stereotypes, appealing for greater understanding.
I was warmly surprised by how many agreed to participate. Among them was a nurse who had adopted a baby born with the virus.
On that night, the church was full. Even the unfounded scare of contracting the virus couldn’t keep people away. There was a bit of sensationalism, even titillation, about the way we had advertised the event, and I was fine with that if it stimulated new awareness.
One by one, members stood and shared their personal stories. Some admitted having to unlearn their own fears and prejudice; others spoke of their unrestrained love for family members and friends who needed them during a time of crisis.
When the nurse spoke of how she had connected with her adopted daughter, Chloe, it was especially moving. The agency she dealt with could not find a suitable parent. Who would want to take a child with HIV into their home given the fear of contagion and the prognosis of a tragically short life?
Chloe was with her, and as she spoke the toddler got down off her mother’s knee and began to wander along the center aisle of the church. I noticed Bill in a pew near the front, his eyes locked on the girl, his posture stiffening. When she came alongside him, she stopped and looked up at him. Then she did something I will never forget. She crawled on his lap.
Bill’s body lurched. You could tell he wanted to stand, knock Chloe of his knees and run for the hills. But then she rested her hands on his shoulders and squared her face to his, their noses nearly touching.
Most people in the assembly were aware of Bill and his prejudiced views. A hush came over all of us. How would he react? Would he create a scene that would forever mar the harmonious tone of our event?
Then something happened that we least expected. Call it a grace-filled moment of conversion. Bill wrapped his arms around Chloe and gave her the warmest of embraces. There was a collective sigh of relief and some people even clapped.
Fast forward. Bill became a lead deacon in our congregation. He was a changed person, a man on a mission. Our church had an unused manse on our property and Bill led a movement to get it certified as the only approved daycare facility in our city for children born with HIV. He helped form a ministry that provided hours of respite care for men whose companions were suffering the end stages of AIDS. Our deacons would relieve them for a few hours so that they could run errands, get some air, decompress.
One of the last times I saw Bill was at one of these homes. I had come to say a prayer with a young man who was in his final hours. I saw Bill from behind as he was leaning over the bed. He was helping to change the sheets, getting his hands dirty in the real and compassionate work of loving another human being.
He turned and said, “Hi, Pastor Krin. I’m glad to see you.”
“Not as glad as I am to see you, Bill,” I replied.