SPRING HILL — In 2009, Spring Hill United Church of Christ followed the lead of the denomination's 24th General Synod of 2003 and adopted a statement of inclusiveness: The church body would welcome and affirm all people, including people of every sexual identity.
One way the church has decided to live up to that statement is by offering an educational and support group for those with HIV/AIDS, as well as people affected by it, beginning this month. The group will meet from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month at the church.
"For the past two years, our church has declared itself open to all people, regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, health or disabilities, economic status or family structure," said the Rev. Carlan Helgeson. "As part of that inclusiveness of all people in our congregation, we are excited to be able to reach out to those who may lack the support and affirmation that comes from being HIV positive or having AIDS."
The ministry, called Red Project, will be led by church member and ministerial student Ray Gomez. "I chose the name Red Project because red is a stand-out, shout-out kind of color," Gomez said.
Red is also the color of the AIDS ribbon used to represent the illness, he said.
"Red denotes danger and is an angry color, representing the worst in human behavior and ignorance, along with hatred shown to the people with the illness in the early years," Gomez said, "and the stigma surrounding HIV, even today."
Gomez is HIV positive and has more than 25 years of experience teaching and advocating on HIV/AIDS. He holds degrees in education and multicultural education and is working on a second master's degree in pastoral counseling. He is an ordained minister through the Missionary Church International and is a student in ministry with the United Church of Christ.
Gomez, who is gay, said he attends the church in Spring Hill because it is open and affirming.
"A lot of churches do not want to service or go out of their way to reach the HIV population," he said. "It's unfortunate because a lot of people with HIV live in this community. There's so much stigma still attached to HIV, so (for that reason) many people don't want anything to do with church."
Gomez said that several years ago he personally felt rejection by many churches. Subsequently, he turned to alcohol, crack cocaine and promiscuous living.
"I discovered quite quickly that the world's solutions make great promises but can never deliver," he said. "It was all just an illusion of the intimacy I was seeking, and I was left more broken, more hopeless and experienced deeper despair."
Over the past 11 years, Gomez said, he returned to the faith of his youth and began ministering to those who were hurting and broken. Now, as an advocate and peer in the field, he is a certified prevention specialist, HIV test counselor and peer educator.
"I have recovered from crack addiction and alcohol abuse," he said. "I have discovered the Metropolitan Community Church and the United Church of Christ, two denominations that allow me to be fully myself and fully Christian, and which give me the opportunity to minister to a hurting and broken community."
Reconciliation for hurting people is his goal. "My purpose, and Pastor Carlan's purpose, is to reconcile gay men, lesbians and bisexual people that have been hurt by other Christians and that don't attend church anymore, and welcome them back into a family of faith."
Topics at the monthly classes will include "I Just Tested Positive: Now What?" "Talking with My Health Care Provider: The Stuff You Need to Discuss," "Medication Adherence: What's Important and Why?" and "Crystal Meth and HIV: A Non-judgmental Educational Experience."
According to a press release, the purpose of Red Project is to offer emotional, physical and spiritual support, and guidance to those newly diagnosed with HIV and to those who have been positive for some time.
"I believe a good support group needs four things," Gomez said. Physical support, emotional support, education and spiritual support."
There is no cost to attend, but donations will be sought to help with refreshments and educational materials.
Carlan said those attending need not participate in the church. "There are no strings attached," he said. "All we want to do is to help those who have a need and to affirm those who may feel alienated and disenfranchised by society at large. My biggest hope is that people find inner healing and form bonds of friendship from participating in Red Project."
According to Nina Mattei, public information officer for the Hernando County Health Department, the county does not offer a support group for those with HIV/AIDS.
"The Health Department reaches out with HIV/AIDS education, presentations, literature, testing and prevention," said Mattei. "The Health Department clinics offer testing, education, comprehensive care and referrals.
"HIV and AIDS is a concern across Florida," she said, "and we are fortunate to have resources available in Hernando County that support people who are living with HIV and AIDS."