By TIM BULLARD
GARDEN CITY — Controversial issues can span mundane budgetary battles to who’s bringing the fried chicken for the picnic, but on Saturday, April 4, St. Michael’s Church convened a timely AIDS ministry provoking important, passionate discussion.
Before a healing Mass and lunch, heart-breaking testimonials by three HIV-positive residents were heard, and sitting through the testimonials without shedding a tear was tougher halting a tidal wave with a paper umbrella.
Patrick Evans, a parishioner, helped organize the ministry meeting which evoked empathy after three HIV-positive speakers talked — including Evans.
“…Many times prisons are built by attitudes,” said HIV-positive Keith Bowling of CARETEAM, a local AIDS and HIV-positive client assistance organization. “We are talking about a time when there are many prisons being built, and I’m not talking about iron bars.
“Now I don’t mean to go and push it in your house. I don’t mean to slam it in your face. I only need to find my faith, and if I find my faith, I’ll let myself free, and I’m not going to let that stop me. Does that help?”
“In the darkest hour, I don’t feel alone, and that makes me live,” said Bowling, who is on triple medicine therapy. “I am just truly amazed at you folks. It is very difficult to go into a church and talk about HIV and AIDS. I think that you have an incredible opportunity in this church.”
Bowling said he was in denial at first, hoping he “would go fast.”
The prices for medicines have been dropped by companies like Burroughs/Wellcome, but not enough to make them affordable for patients. Parishioners listened to stories of churches and doctors turning away HIV-positive patients and a North Carolina Catholic Church where Evans said a family left because the congregation did not want to share Communion with anyone HIV-positive.
Msgr. Thomas Duffy, St. Michael’s pastor, concluded with the Gospel as his guide and a message of love and healing, urging attendees to go beyond prejudices which he said everyone has to overcome.
“The problem is how many people are ashamed, and how many people in their shame feel that unwelcome? For many years the Catholic Church has had a problem that do we give the impression to someone who is not welcome. We hear our Lord say go out to the world and preach the Gospel.
“Every religion tells a joke about their own church and someone coming to heaven,” said Msgr. Duffy. “To think there are people in this community who would say, ‘Would you bury me? I have AIDS. Can I be buried? If I die of AIDS, will you bury me?’ That’s not a bad question to ask because not too long ago the Catholic Church did not bury people who committed suicide.”
If people in the community think that people with AIDS cannot come into church and a sign should be put up “For Saints Only,” Duffy said, “Then we’ve got a problem.”
Duffy responded, “It’s a whole life story. It all goes together. Life is a gift of God, whether you have got AIDS or whether you’ve got male or female or anything else. Are we all really made in the image and likeness of God, and if we are, how can we look at one another and not see brothers and sisters? If we can call him our father, how in the heck can we not see everybody as brothers and sisters who need to be loved? We pray and ask God to forgive our sins, that we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
According to CARETEAM, in December 1997 AIDS cases in Horry County totaled 293, ranking 21st in the state, Georgetown (113, 13th), Williamsburg (96, ninth), the Waccamaw District (502, fifth); South Carolina (7,667); 254 district deaths (4,150 in S.C.); CARETEAM clients 3/31/98 (260) including 169 male (65 percent), 91 female (35 percent), 138 (53 percent African-American, 117 (45 percent white), 5 (2 percent) other with transmission rates at 40 percent (heterosexual), 25 percent (homosexual), 7 percent IV (drug abuse), 3 percent (hemophilia) ,25 percent (unknown).
The December 1997 HIV cases included Horry County (637, ninth), Georgetown (190, 16th), Williamsburg (172, 10th), Waccamaw District (999, fifth) and South Carolina (13,410).