One by One by One:
As AIDS kills more than 8,000 every day, faithful individuals step forward to fight the disease
Karen Blessen and Lisa Rodriguez, Special Contributors to The Dallas Morning News
FOUR AMONG USFollowing are profiles of four regular people of faith who have been moved to fight against HIV/AIDS and for those who live with the disease.
* * * * * * "I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one." Mother Teresa, 1983 * * * * * *
The doctorDr. Keith Rawlings recalls attending a health conference in 1984 and hearing for the first time about a disease that was transmitted through needles and sex. Officials estimated that the disease would affect 1 million people by the year 2000 (a gross underestimate), and Dr. Rawlings found himself listening not as a doctor, but as a parent. "I had a 2-year-old and ... it occurred to me that my child could be at risk of what in essence was being touted as the most significant health threat of our generation. So I had to decide what I was going to do about that." In the 20 years since, Dr. Rawlings has devoted his career to working with AIDS patients. Today he is medical director of the Peabody Health Center, south of Fair Park, which provides HIV/AIDS outpatient care, education and support services. Dr. Rawlings sees 20 to 30 HIV-positive patients every day. Even in the mid-1980s, nearly all of Dr. Rawlings' HIV-positive patients were black and, often, black women, he said. The number of cumulative AIDS cases in the United States reported through December 2002 was 859,000. Of those, 59,772 were in Texas. In Dallas County 10,521 people were living with HIV/AIDS in 2003. More than half of new HIV infections in the United States occur among blacks, even though they represent only 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Insufficient AIDS education, poverty and poor medical care contribute to the spread of the disease. "If you don't have access to health care ... there is a greater possibility that you will not even be identified as positive," Dr. Rawlings said. "As a result, you may not be diagnosed until you have a far more advanced disease." Dr. Rawlings, a member of St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, said the church should respond to HIV/AIDS the same way it responds to other needs. "What can the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque, or the temple do? ... That's a long list. The easy answer is that one should do what one is best at - caring, supporting, nurturing and helping people to heal on a spiritual and emotional level." Dr. Rawlings' patients often confront HIV and AIDS alone, having lost the support of families, friends, and in some cases, spiritual leaders. "The first thing I ask of the church is the ability and willingness to continue to provide what it always has provided and to not let that individual - that sheep - be alone in the wilderness."
* * * * * * When wilt thou save the people? Oh, God of mercy, when? The people, Lord, the people, not thrones and crowns, but men? Flowers of thy heart, O God are they. Let them not pass like weeds away. Hymn, "When Wilt Thou Save The People?" Ebenezer Elliot, 1850 * * * * * *
The professorStephen Sprinkle, 53, an associate professor of practical theology at Texas Christian University, was a young minister struggling with his homosexuality at the time of the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. He had resigned himself to a life of celibacy out of fear that his Disciples of Christ church in North Carolina would not accept his being gay. He was teaching at Eastern North Carolina University in 1986 when a former student called him in desperation. The young man, in his early 20s, had learned he was HIV-positive. "I asked him why I was the person he chose to call, and he said, 'Because you are the only minister I know who I thought wouldn't hate me,' " said Dr. Sprinkle, who was not open about his sexual orientation at the time. He accompanied the former student for his first treatments, and their friendship continued until the young man's death. Others learned of Dr. Sprinkle's response and came to him for counseling and to ask theological questions about their condition. As a minister and a teacher, Dr. Sprinkle spoke out against prejudice and the cruel judgments of those Christians who said it was God's will that gay people die. When churches in the late 1980s hung out signs welcoming visitors, he said, "there was always a subtext to that. A person had to be healthy. A person had to be straight. A person had to be white. Those were homogenous communities, and yet, in every single community of faith, somebody was suffering from HIV, or had someone in their family who was suffering from HIV. And usually what happened - those people were quietly put aside." There were, of course, exceptions. In 1986 a group of clergy and counselors helped establish AIDS Interfaith Network in Dallas to assist people with the disease. And predominantly gay churches dealt with the crisis straightforwardly: Their members were dying. But overall, churches were minimally involved, Dr. Sprinkle said. "There was always a firewall between the official church and anything it would consider controversial. The church loves to play it safe." He served on the board at Samaritan House of Tarrant County, which provides housing and support to people with HIV/AIDS. He also has led spiritual support groups at AIDS Interfaith Network in Tarrant County. Now an ordained minister in the Alliance of Baptists, he has provided counseling and preached funerals for those people with HIV/AIDS. As a teacher, he has included the disease as a topic for study. He has preached on AIDS at the City Church of Dallas, where he attends, and at other churches by invitation. The judgment day described in Matthew 25 addresses the difference between those who talk their faith and those who walk it, Dr. Sprinkle said. "It's got to be a combination of walking and talking at the same time for it to be validly Christian." In facing the AIDS crisis Dr. Sprinkle said he's comforted by classic Christian hymns that provide a call to action. "The hymnal of the churches is filled with those kinds of calls, and you know, every once in a while, you get somebody who actually believes it."
* * * * * * Hold them close to your heart, my God. Give them courage. Give them strength to survive many, many years on Earth, as they'd like. You are their only hope. You are their only one. AIDS prayer, Guguletu Youth Choir in South Africa * * * * * *
The church elderIn the South African township of Guguletu, the J.L. Zwane Memorial Presbyterian Church has a ritual for those who become infected with HIV. A person shares his or her story in front of the whole congregation, which then stands to sing "Never Give Up." Occasionally the person brings a baby and everyone passes the child around as if to say, "This baby belongs to all of us." This church is leading the way there in welcoming and supporting victims of HIV/AIDS, said Susan Rutherford, 57, senior editor at the Office of Clinical Affairs at UT Southwestern Medical Center. She is an elder at Dallas' First Presbyterian Church, which helps support the Guguletu church. A mother of two, Ms. Rutherford has taught humanities at Richland College for 25 years. She became involved in AIDS outreach through her interest in African art and her interaction with African students. Since 1999 Ms. Rutherford has been on three trips to the township near Cape Town. Last fall Ms. Rutherford and three other church members, along with a research coordinator from Parkland's AIDS service and two AIDS educators, visited Guguletu. They took medical supplies, clothes and shoes and assisted the church's AIDS ministry, which includes education, counseling and hospice. The church also runs an after-school program that helps children with homework and provides meals. "We're told that these people are inspired to be a part of a church that embraces them because they're shunned by most every other church," Ms. Rutherford said. First Presbyterian also has paid school fees of 23 children over the past five years, recognizing the role of education in preventing the spread of HIV. On her second trip, in 2002, she listened to a gaunt young AIDS victim share his story. After, he asked Ms. Rutherford a question that still haunts her. He could not understand why those with power and money to provide treatment would let Africans die rather than give them life-prolonging drugs. "He had this incredulous look on his face, and I said, 'I don't know why.' I had come with the experts, but the one question he asked I couldn't answer, and I still can't answer," Ms. Rutherford said. The church outreach has increased with the number of AIDS deaths in Guguletu. Since her first trip in 1999, the church has grown from about 500 members to 1,800. People sit on top of each other at services, the crowd spilling into doorways and windows. She has used her connections at UT Southwestern to help generate support for the church. Representatives from First Presbyterian, Parkland and UT Southwestern are looking for money to pay for an on-site coordinator in Guguletu to work in the church, the hospice and the local clinic. "This is something I've needed to do for a long time," Ms. Rutherford said. "So spiritually I feel drawn to it, I feel passionate, I feel like it's my mission in life."
* * * * * * We heed, O Lord, your summons, and answer: Here are we! Send us upon your errand, let us your servants be. Our strength is dust and ashes, our years a passing hour, but you can use our weakness to magnify your power.
Methodist hymn, "The Voice of God is Calling," words by John Haynes Holmes, 1913 * * * * * *
The ministerThe Rev. Milton Traylor, 42, recalls a time about four years ago when a member of his church approached him to ask for a condom. The minister invited the man to his office to discuss his decision to have sex and to encourage him to consider abstinence. But when he found the man determined to go his own way, he gave him a condom. "That may have been the very time he would have been infected. That may have saved his life," Mr. Traylor said. As senior pastor of Praise Cathedral Ministries, Mr. Traylor became involved in HIV/AIDS ministry when he recognized the disease spreading through his South Dallas community. He decided he could either turn his head or work to reduce his congregation's risk of becoming infected. "It was a scary thing when people in the community began to show up positive," Mr. Traylor said. "I had to face the reality of these issues with my children. And it changed the whole direction of the church because the church didn't deal with sexual issues." Today he preaches about AIDS from the pulpit, discussing risky behaviors and encouraging testing. He promotes abstinence, but gives options for safer sex. "God may not like the behavior," he said, "but he still loves us." As a young man in Dallas, Mr. Traylor abused drugs. A pastor from his church, Vivian Curtis, took him in. Living with her family changed his life, he said. "Before I knew it, God told me, 'Don't come out of the pulpit,' and I've never been out of it since." Mr. Traylor has created a program called the Pastors' Initiative that brings together health organizations, nonprofit groups and ministers. He's committed to getting pastors involved in HIV/AIDS ministry because of their influence over their congregations. "I pray that we pastors can come together and not be afraid of addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS, and develop a support system to help our congregations and our communities," said Mr. Traylor, who also volunteers for AIDS Interfaith Network in Dallas. "We can do it for everything else. Let's do it for this disease." He has agreed to work with the Nigerian village of Abeokuta, assisting churches, the government and families in AIDS education and intervention. He's developing a program that includes Dr. Rawlings, who will help train physicians there. "We've always housed, always fed and clothed and always counseled those in need," said Mr. Traylor about his church of 40 to 50 members. "But this disease has taken us to another level."
HOPE, ACTION, AND POSSIBILITYIf one person can make a difference in the fight, the question lingers: What would happen if every denomination, every church, every member became involved? Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus came together for a time of prayer before 17,000 people gathered for the opening of the 15th International AIDS Conference in July in Bangkok. "Never before had people of faith from the world's major religions met together to face the world escalation of the AIDS pandemic," Mr. Messer wrote. There are models of partnerships among churches, nonprofit organizations and governments. In Uganda, churches have promoted a "Love Faithfully" campaign alongside the government's "Love Carefully" program. World Vision has partnered with governments and communities, as well as churches, agencies and organizations, including the Bill Gates Foundation. Celebrities who speak openly of their faith, including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton and Bono, have led significant efforts against AIDS. "Jesus went to the lepers. He dealt with the lame and the afflicted, the poor and the outcasts, the lesser amongst us," Dr. Rawlings said. "And through grace and through faith he tried to show by example and to teach us to follow in that guidance. The question of what we should do is actually a fairly simple one to me: We should do."
HOW CAN CONGREGATIONS HELP?Stephen Sprinkle, Susan Rutherford and the Rev. Milton Traylor offer advice to places of worship and members.
OrganizationsAIDS Arms Inc., Dallas
Offers support for patients living with HIV/AIDS AIDS Interfaith Network Inc., Dallas
Programs are designed to meet the practical, emotional and spiritual needs of people with HIV/AIDS. Also offers support for caregivers and education for people at risk of infection. Tarrant County AIDS Interfaith Network
Provides in-home respite care by trained volunteers to people with AIDS and their family members. The program also offers wellness classes, delivery of prescription medications, household assistance and transportation for AIDS patients. Grief counseling is available for family members. UNAIDS
A United Nations program that promotes prevention of HIV, care for patients and support for effected communities World Vision
A Christian humanitarian organization serving the poor worldwide. J.L. Zwane Church and Centre
Church and community center in Guguletu, South Africa World Council of Churches
Represents more than 400 million Christians worldwide Save the Children
Helps communities in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia provide care and support for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS
Provides updated information, including treatment news www.aaaw.org
Artists Against AIDS Worldwide provides music, videos and an instant accounting of AIDS deaths since Jan. 1. www.ccih.org
Christian Connections for International Health promotes health and wholeness with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. www.e-alliance.ch
The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance coordinates Christian advocacy efforts internationally. www.lutheranworld.org
Lutheran World Federation has a global campaign against HIV/AIDS. www.gbgm-umc.org/health/aids
United Methodist HIV/AIDS Ministries Network provides updated information on the pandemic.
BOOKSThe Invisible People: How the U.S. Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time, Greg Behrman (Free Press, $25) Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis, Donald E. Messer (Augsburg Fortress Press, $15) AIDS and the Church: The Second Decade, Earl E. Shelp and Ronald H. Sunderland (Westminster/John Knox Press, $17.95) The Churches Speak On: AIDS, J. Gordon Melton (Gale Research)
ALL STORIES:: One By One By One
:: One Bullet
:: In Mom's Eyes
:: A Sea of Sound
:: Diary of a Confetti Engineer
:: What Did He See From the Mountaintop?
:: Faces of a Plague
:: What turns compassion into action?
:: Today Marks the Beginning
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