Some AIDS patients turn to religion But faith can fuel guilt and anger, too, psychotherapist says


TOANO, Va. - Rebecca Skinner had not been to church for 25 years. But last year, Skinner found out that people were praying for her inside the quaint sanctuary of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church just down the hill from her ranch-style house in Toano.

One of those church members was Skinner's mail deliverer, Betty Thorp, who had befriended Skinner on her postal route along the village's sloping back roads.

About a year ago, Thorp invited Skinner to one of the church's Friday night services. Skinner, a 37-year-old with AIDS, decided to take Thorp up on her offer. "All these people were praying for me," Skinner said. "Well, I thought the least I could do is just show up once."

Today, Skinner is a regular at the services. She says going back to church has given her a new religious outlet that helps her cope with the challenges of the disease. "It's called 'prayer and praise service' - and that's exactly what it is," Skinner said about the tightknit gatherings of about 13 churchgoers. "We give thanks, and basically vocalize how God's working in our lives and pray a lot for other people."

When faced with a terminal disease, religious faith often becomes a central theme in people's lives, according to Reiko Schwab, an associate professor of counselor education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who specializes in loss and grief issues. "Religion is an important factor," said Schwab, who runs a support group for bereaved parents in Norfolk. "People seek something that will comfort them, and help them find hope in the future."

Frederic Tate, a James City County, Va., psychologist who provides counseling and care for AIDS patients on a volunteer basis, said people often become more spiritual when they find out they are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"They put what is important in life into perspective," said Tate, who had his own psychotherapy practice treating AIDS patients in Richmond, Va., in the mid-1980s.

But religious faith also has its drawbacks when coping with AIDS, Tate said. Too many ministers still preach that AIDS is a punishment against homosexuals and drug users, he said. Many AIDS patients who contracted HIV through unsafe sex or dirty needles react to this by feeling guilty, or by feeling angry at God for causing them to suffer.

Fortunately, Tate said, most religious people with AIDS work through their feelings of guilt and anger and eventually come to understand the illness as a "gift" from God rather than a punishment, he said.

"It seems alien to us that somebody could turn around something that devastating to become a gift," Tate said. "But I think because it's so devastating - that is part of what defines it is a gift.

"The fact is that when people realize that time is short, they also realize that relationships and loving and serving people is the most important thing. ... Whereas without the diagnosis of a terminal illness, they are less likely to act on that."

Viewing AIDS as a gift is not necessarily a form of denial, Tate said.

"I think this is very rational and very healthy," Tate said. "It's not just a defense mechanism. It's very real. These people don't just say it's a gift. These people will often demonstrate that belief in their own lives, by volunteering as an advocate for other people with AIDS, or doing hospice work."

After Skinner found out she was HIV positive, she started volunteering as a public speaker, teaching college students and youth in detention homes and halfway houses how to avoid contracting the HIV virus and how to treat people with AIDS with compassion.

"Basically, what's getting me through is God," Skinner said. "He's always there. And I don't think He's doing this to punish xTC me. I've always felt God has a mission for you in life. I think mine is to open people's eyes as far as the prejudice against people with AIDS, and to teach people precautions so they don't get AIDS."

Much of Skinner's religious journey has been about counting her blessings.

She has fond childhood memories of singing hymns inside a Presbyterian church in Newport News, Va. Skinner strayed from regular churchgoing after her family moved away. But she never lost her faith in God.

She said she contracted the HIV-virus in 1981 from her ex-fiance, who was a drug user and has since died of AIDS. Skinner is currently healthy, despite the fact that her immune system is functioning poorly enough that she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS four years ago.

Her parents have rented her a house, where she gardens and works on her stained-glass artwork.

"It's so beautiful out here," said Skinner, sitting on her deck overlooking the swaying trees and blooming mums and geraniums in her back yard. "This is my paradise. God has been very good to me."

Skinner said another godsend is her pastor at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, the Rev. Hap Gregg.

"He jogs a lot through the neighborhood," she said. "He'll stop by. And if I'm feeling down, he'll say, 'Let's have a prayer.' He's new down here. And I think the church needs him. There's a reason why he's here - he got me back going to church."

Since she's started going back to church, Skinner said she feels more comfortable talking with her family and friends about her faith.

"I can express my feelings now without feeling awkward," she said.

Gregg said ministering to Skinner has added life to the church's Friday evening services, which are designed to be informal and friendly. "She has a very positive outlook," Gregg said. "My greatest reward is seeing how her heart's tenderness to the Lord has blossomed."

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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