Where is the Church for People with AIDS?

[Religion News Service, June 13, 1995]

Where is the church for people with AIDS?

Today the church is chugging up five flights of stairs in a downtown Baltimore nursing home. Gary Carr, sales manager for a Christian radio station and a member of First Baptist Church of Pimlico, first began visiting AIDS patients here in 1988. “Back then there was only about six,” he says, pumping up the stairs. “Now there’s fifty, fifty-five. Nearly the whole floor.” Rounding the landing he remembers something else. “And back then only a few were women. Now it’s about a quarter female.”

AIDS has become so politicized that simple Christian ministry to those living under its shadow doesn’t look so simple. Some see AIDS routinely linked with support for homosexuality, and are reluctant to join that parade. Others fear a cover-up: transmission is easier than they’re telling us. And some are just revolted by the effects of this wasting disease.

But some, like Gary Carr, just show up and do it. We push open the heavy metal door and stand in a beige linoleum corridor. The persistent scent of urine weaves through the air. Down the hall and through another door we find the social room, more beige and linoleum, with flourescent tubes overhead.

Gary starts setting up for worship and Bible study. He drops his Bible, in a maroon zippered case with kinte-cloth straps, on a table next to a slip that reads “Maintenance Request: leaking radiator.” He goes off to gather participants for worship. In the first room he calls to Rachel, “How ya doin?”

But Rachel is weeping. She is sitting on the edge of her bed, turned toward the window, with her face in her hands. Outside, a clay-white sky hovers over the city, promising damp heat but no rain. The lower window panel is cranked open, and muggy gusts sweep sporadically in.

“I’m not feeling too good,” she falters to Gary. “I’ve got a real bad headache, and I can’t get rid of it.” Gary sits by her and puts his arm around her shoulder. She doesn’t notice my presence in the room; it isn’t until later that I learn she is blind. “I hate to be sick,” she says, almost apologetically. “I’m by nature a happy-go-lucky person. I don’t need to be crying.” She turns toward Gary, and tears spill freely from her red-rimmed eyes.

“I think that the Lord’s gonna lift you up,” Gary says. “You know, it’s all right to cry. It’s all right. These old bodies we got, they breaking down.”

“I been calling on my Savior today,” Rachel agrees. As we leave to gather more worshippers, Rachel’s voice is murmuring softly behind us: “Jesus. Jesus.”

Gary and I walk the rectangle of the fifth floor. Around the corner a big nurse in blue scrubs spots Gary and starts shouting to patients. “You wanta have church today? Tom! Danny! Wanna go to church? Mr. Franklin!” Gary takes Mr. Franklin’s chair and wheels it toward the social room; the wheels emit an piercing screech. “Sometimes we have five or eight come to worship, and sometimes just one or two,” Gary says. “That’s OK. The Bible says, where two or more are gathered, he’s in the midst.”

When Mr. Franklin is pulled up to the table, we are joined by a large, cheerful lady who wheels herself in. Jackie’s hair is gathered in a tiny topknot, pinned with an exuberant pearl-studded barrette. She notes Gary’s outfit: yellow t-shirt and khaki shorts. “Am I allowed to whistle at those legs?” she asks. I express my hope that she will. Jackie lets out a wolf whistle.

“What I’m gonna do with you?” Gary asks in mock exasperation. “Mercy! But the Lord told me to come here anyway. He told me to come.”

Some walking, some rolling, some leaning on canes, a circle of people gradually surrounds the table. A thin young man on two canes, with an earring, stands wistfully just inside the door. Two other young men walk in, duck their heads, and whip off their baseball caps reverently. Rachel comes in smiling, her headache lightened. Tom rolls to a place near Jackie.

Gary begins, “We’re going to be reading this day from the Book of James, and we’ll sing and pray. We’re here to be of encouragement to each other. When Jesus was on earth, he was a man of sorrows. He can sympathize.”

Gary begins reading,  “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” He reads in a loud, clear voice, salted with extra firmness, like a kindergarten teacher.

“One day, when the Lord returns,” Gary goes on, “He might say, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ What would you say? I led a good life? I never drank, smoke, or cursed?”

“I would tell him that I loved him,” Jackie says.

“That’s right,” Gary says, “It’s a gift, not earned by any good works, lest any man should boast. It’s a gift, it’s free, just pray that Christ will come into your life and he’ll save you. He’ll take action. And he’ll remember all your sins no more.”

The group moves into a slower song, “Sometimes my burdens, so hard to bear.” Hands softly pat the table top in rythm.

“We’re lifting up our hands all the day long,” Gary says. “This outward body is just a shell. When we get to heaven…” he begins.

“Won’t be any wheelchairs,” says Tom.

“Won’t be any wheelchairs,” Gary agrees.

“Won’t be like on earth,” Tom goes on.

“Won’t be like on earth. Rachel will be able to see, and Tom will be able to walk,” Gary says.

“We’ll have our resurrection bodies, and we’ll be called up to meet the Lord in the air.”

Rachel echoes, “In the air.”

“Jesus is coming soon,” Gary says.

Rachel says, “Yes.”

Tom pauses, then says, “I think about that every day.” And his sweet face opens like a flower.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Christian Life