Gay cleric comes out and joins AIDS battle Positive HIV test leads him to go public

March 01, 1993|By Melvin Durai | Melvin Durai,Contributing Writer

For years, the Rev. David F. Shipley kept a secret from his congregation.

"I didn't think I was really doing anything wrong because I felt that the church just needed to grow," said the 39-year-old Baltimore minister.

Then he tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. He decided that hiding his homosexuality wasn't as important as warning others about the deadly disease.

Now he travels to churches, high schools and universities, preaching a new gospel: "There is no such thing as safe sex; only safer sex."

He says many clergymen frown upon his urging teen-agers to use condoms, because that appears to condone premarital sex. But he says, "I don't think teen-agers should be condemned to die simply because they don't listen to the message of the church."

Mr. Shipley's transformation began six years ago, when he was in his fourth year as minister of the Otterbein Memorial United Methodist Church in Hampden.

In December 1986, he suffered a stroke. Tests revealed he had the human immunodeficiency virus. Beset by new concerns, Mr. Shipley, who studied at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., took time off from the ministry.

Unlike many of his colleagues, he believes that being gay and being a Christian can be compatible.

"I told myself, 'I have a life-threatening disease. These may be my last years and I don't want to spend them hiding the fact that I am gay,' " he said.

Mr. Shipley then began to show symptoms. For several years, he struggled with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, fighting off rashes, night sweats, cramps in his limbs. At one point, he told a group of students, his "tongue felt like it was lacerated, like someone had swished a switchblade across it."

With the physical problems came depression and a crisis of faith.

Then a friend and former classmate asked him to speak about AIDS at a church. He accepted and decided he had found a calling.

He remembers saying to himself, "This feels right, this feels good, I should do it."

Those feelings were confirmed in December, when he ministered to AIDS patients attending a retreat near Frederick.

"When I reached out and touched them, it was almost like electricity was going through my body," he said.

"It was like a gift from God to give me courage for the days to come."

Speaking to a large group of Towson State University students recently, Mr. Shipley used a mixture of humor and seriousness to emphasize the dangers of unprotected sex.

He was the first AIDS victim many of the students had met.

"When a guy says to you, 'If I use a condom, I won't feel anything,' your response should be, 'If you don't use a condom, you really won't feel anything," he said, as the students responded with bursts of laughter.

When he speaks to students, he doesn't look or sound like a typical minister. Dressed in paint-stained jeans and sneakers, he spoke plainly and without frequent quotes from the Bible.

He also showed few signs of having AIDS. The condition has stabilized, producing fewer symptoms.

Mr. Shipley attributes the change to his diet and medication. But the students were impressed with the message.

"A lot of people in our age group think that they're invincible," said Elaine Roman, a 19-year-old sophomore. "The danger of AIDS is more real when you get a face-to-face impression."

Christopher Bowling, a 20-year-old junior, said many students are still having unprotected sex. "They know that AIDS is out there, but they think that if they ignore it, it will just go away," he said.

For the last few months, Mr. Shipley has been attending Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill, where he and other homosexuals have been welcomed.

"They have provided loving support for us," he said. "We don't know folk for whether they are gay or straight, but what kind of people they are inside," said The Rev. Roger Gench, Brown Memorial's pastor, who called Mr. Shipley's AIDS education efforts "absolutely critical."

While Mr. Shipley said he's optimistic about a cure for AIDS, he doesn't know if it will happen in time to save him. So, he said, he spends his days trying to save others.

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