IN NOVEMBER 1985, several hundred people came together in the sanctuary of Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church to grieve, to gain strength from each other and to give witness to the need for Baltimore's people of faith to involve ourselves in responding to the growing crisis of AIDS.
We organized the AIDS Interfaith Network of Baltimore to provide pastoral care and direct assistance to those with AIDS-related needs, to educate clergy and laity and to advocate for just and compassionate responses to this epidemic. Most of all, we saw it was necessary to take a public stand as people of faith -- to stand with people with AIDS, rather than in judgmental rejection of them.
Many of us thought then that we were part of a short-term response to an emergency situation, one that couldn't possibly last for years and decades. We were wrong. Now, as we reflect on our first five years of ministry in the midst of AIDS, we try again to summon our strength, our resolve and our faith to involve ourselves with AIDS for as long as it is necessary.
In looking back over the past five years, we see that some things have changed, and some have not. It is still necessary to assert that AIDS is not a punishment from God -- that we, in all our wonderful human diversity, are each valued parts of creation, just as we are.
And it is more necessary than ever to say that AIDS is happening to all of us, not to an amorphous "them" from whom the rest of us can separate ourselves. This notion of separateness and "it's not my problem" attitudes are antithetical to our understanding of religion.
The face of AIDS in Baltimore has changed during these past five years.
At our inception, the AIDS Interfaith Network found itself ministering primarily to gay white men.
Now, in the part of our program which offers assistance to enable people who die of AIDS to be buried with dignity, we are primarily assisting African-American women.
The issues of coping with grief and loss, of trying to live with hope in the face of life-threatening illness, and of coping with stigma and discrimination are similar for everyone living with HIV. However, certain needs for financial and emotional support are increasing, as AIDS affects an increasing number of people who were already culturally disenfranchised.
Recently, Mayor Schmoke's AIDS Coordinating Council submitted a comprehensive report with recommendations for how Baltimore needs to respond in the areas of patient care, social services, legal concerns, prevention and education, and policy and legislation. The report outlines a broad, realistic and urgently needed program for action, including the establishment an Office of AIDS Coordination to ensure that the program is fully implemented.
As usual with AIDS, we are running to catch up to where we should already be. We never had time to waste, and we certainly don't have it now. We who are involved in AIDS ministries hope the mayor moves swiftly to enact this landmark report.
Sunday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. we will gather again at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church. We will remember those we have lost. We will reflect on where we've been and where we need to go. We will create an environment that offers healing and hope to all those living with AIDS, their families, their friends, their caregivers -- all of us.
In 1990, we are all living with AIDS.
The writer is pastor of the First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church and chairperson of the AIDS Interfaith Network of Baltimore.