Dec. 30, 2006
By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Churches ostracize sick people.
Yes or no?
The answer depends on the illness.
If that person is sick with hives, depression, delusion or cancer - then no.
If that person is sick from HIV and AIDS - then, maybe, yes.
'People with HIV and AIDS are continuously turned away from church and organized faith activities because of the social stigma associated with the disease,' said Janet Cates, program manager for HIV patients at Central Texas Support Services in Temple. 'The ignorance of AIDS in Central Texas is shameful. Everyone thinks it's still a gay disease. It's not.'
Pastor Mike Bergman from Hope Community Church in Belton agrees.
'I'd like to say that all churches accept anyone, but I can't,' Bergman said. 'A lot of churches have an unfounded fear of HIV and AIDS.'
Ms. Cates has 154 clients with HIV or AIDS; 92 are male, 62 female. She said not one of them has a spiritual home where they can be honest about themselves.
Two middle-aged HIV patients interviewed said they attend church for Biblical inspiration but don't expect fellowship. They can't share their doubts, fears or pain with anyone because once they do, they said won't be welcome anymore. They've had it happen before.
'That is wrong,' Bergman said. 'I condemn the atmosphere that says church is not a place to admit an ailment because that ailment has presupposed connections.'
The pastor said being kind in Christ's name to a person with AIDS is not an endorsement of homosexuality, despite the common opinion of the Christian church.
To combat the social stigma associated with the disease, Bergman and staff at Hope Community Church in Belton have started a special ministry for those with HIV and AIDS.
'At this point, we're still setting up on both ends,' Bergman said, explaining that the project is a collaborative effort between himself and Ms. Cates. 'I'm getting together the people who want to participate in the ministry, and Janet is identifying the patients who want to participate.'
The pastor had the idea for the AIDS ministry in November when he attended an AIDS conference called 'Breaking the Silence.' Once church volunteers are trained in mid-January, Bergman said the ministry should be fully operational by February.
'This is not a recruiting exercise. They're perfectly welcome to come to our church,' Bergman said. 'But our primary objective is to care for them. It's about giving them the opportunity to develop relationships that can have a deep spiritual meaning.'
Ways to develop these relationships will include phone conversations, lunch meetings, help with transportation and company on shopping trips or doctor's visits.
'I fully expect some flak as I take on this project,' Bergman said. 'But in the long run, the flak doesn't mean anything.'
A hug inspired Pastor Bergman to implement the HIV/AIDS ministry at Hope Community Church in Belton.
'She told her story,' Bergman said of one of the HIV/AIDS patients who spoke at the November AIDS conference, 'Breaking the Silence.' 'I'm not a crier, but there were tears in my eyes when she was through.'
The woman had contracted AIDS through her husband.
'He had deliberately withheld the information that he was infected,' Bergman said. 'She didn't find out until she was pregnant with her first baby. By then, it was too late for the first baby.'
Doctors told the woman that her second pregnancy, quite unplanned, would be successful if she continued taking her medication and if she had a Cesarean when it came time for the baby to be born.
'But she had the baby on the floor of her home,' Bergman said. 'The baby got AIDS.'
Nothing could help this woman repair her life. She could only share her story in effort to encourage others not to make similar choices.
'I had to ask her if I could hug her,' Bergman said. 'At the moment I hugged her, I knew had to something to help the part of our community infected with HIV and AIDS.'
Rejected yet held responsible
A minister at the conference shared the story of his HIV-positive son.
'He got the virus from his pregnant wife who got it from a blood transfusion,' Bergman said. 'He worked at a church, but as soon as the news of the AIDS got around, he was fired.'
That couple's baby died not long after it was born.
'The dad had to embalm his own baby,' Bergman said. 'The people at the morgue didn't want to risk contamination. It became the responsibility of the parent.'
Bergman said that man still lives, but he's angry, alone and shunned.
'I can't imagine how he feels,' Bergman said. 'Not to be welcome at his own church. What a disgrace.'
No more stigma
Bergman says he wants his new HIV/AIDS ministry to be an encouragement to other churches.
'I'd like to see others follow suit,' Bergman said. 'So these people can have their church as God intended it.'
The pastor agrees with his critics when they say that most cases of AIDS are due to bad choices.
'But before we're too condemning of those who make bad choices, let's take a step back and realize that we all suffer from that,' Bergman said. 'The cure for making bad choices is the grace of god.'
There are several bad choices that are socially accepted: overeating, alcoholism, smoking, extreme sports and daredevil behavior.
'We all make choices we regret,' Bergman said. 'We choose to do something risky that could result in death.'
But alcoholics, smokers and chronically depressed don't get church doors slammed before them. They have support groups, 12-step programs and human understanding.
'A support group for people with AIDS is long over due,' said one 55-year-old woman afflicted with the virus.
Her case manager at Central Texas Support Services, Ms. Janet Cates, agrees.
They don't need to commiserate together in dark allies, Ms. Cates said, reiterating that HIV and AIDS patients should be welcome at church.
'We're a small congregation, so we don't have much money to give,' Bergman said. 'But we do have our lives - and we can invest our lives into their's.'
When Ms. Cates and church members met earlier this month for an organizational meeting, she asked them if 'they were ready to stick their necks out and do what needs to be done.'
Pastor Bergman said a 79-year-old lady was the one to answer.
'The church leadership is ready, and I'm ready too,' she said. 'So let's get it rolling.' Hope Community Church meets weekly at First Christian Church. The pastor can be reached at (254) 541-4015. Janet Capes at Central Texas Support Services in Temple can be reached at (254) 760-5423. The AIDS hotline is 1-800-AIDs.