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Churches should embrace, not shun, members with AIDS

(ran W, S editions of CTI)

I cannot tell you how disgusted I am with the way churches are treating the family of the Rev. Jimmy Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Allen's family is riddled with AIDS. He has lost a daughter-in-law and a grandson. Two sons and another grandson have the disease. One of his sons is gay. The other is a former Disciples of Christ clergyman who was fired from his pulpit when he announced to his congregation that he, his wife, Lydia, and sons Bryan and Matt all had acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The HIV virus that infected Lydia apparently came from a contaminated batch of blood.

That is all sad enough. But when Jimmy Allen went about the Dallas area looking for a church that would accept 3-year-old Matt in its Sunday school, he was rejected by every church he approached _ and not just Southern Baptist churches.

Matt, who is now 12, says he believes in God but does not want anything to do with church because "they kicked me out."

Allen is on a crusade, speaking to any group that will have him. It is a painful time for him, according to a Religion News Service story, and he often breaks down as he tells the family's story.

Who wouldn't? Here is a man who has given his life for Christianity, and when he needs the church the most, it rejects him and his entire family. Testifying to the man's spunk, he has not walked away, as most of us would. Instead, he has waded in and tried to change the most unchangeable institution on the face of the Earth. Good man, that Jimmy Allen.

But aren't you disgusted with this situation? I have often thought the Christian church could be the cruelest, the meanest, the most uncompassionate group of people in town. Now, I know it.

I also know that Christians can rally around a family when tragedy strikes. I have seen that happen hundreds of times. Here in the Northland, for example, we have a Presbyterian church that is the perfect example of how a church should react when members turn up with AIDS.

The pastor of this little church discovered that one of his families had twins who had contacted AIDS through contaminated blood. They were infants, just months old when the disease was discovered.

So the church went to work. The pastor started teaching. The church brought in experts on AIDS, and before very long, people were volunteering to care for the children during the week. They called a press conference and used it to teach the Minneapolis-St. Paul area about how human beings contract the HIV virus.

That is the opposite side of the coin from what happened to the Allen family. Which side you choose is up to you. But for me and my house, we will choose to love our friends and family members when any kind of a life-threatening disease or accident happens.

But here is the secret to responding in a Christian manner to AIDS in your congregation: You have to start teaching and organizing now before the disease strikes your congregation. Listen, pilgrims, this is the most terrible scourge of this century. You have to be prepared to respond with mercy.

First, somebody has to emphasize over and over that people get AIDS through sexual activity, infected blood and contaminated needles. You do not get it from shaking hands or hugging. You do not get it from eating food prepared by someone with AIDS.

Second, every congregation ought to have a brigade of trained people ready to care for AIDS patients. For the training, bring in doctors or nurses who have worked with AIDS patients. Enlist the help of people who would be willing to cook food, clean the living space or just sit at the bedside and hold the patient's hand.

Third, just to make sure that everyone knows how the congregation is going to respond, the governing board should draw up a policy that spells out precisely how the congregation will conduct itself. And there should be a line in the policy that states plainly that the congregation will never turn a person away but will welcome everyone with the love of Christ.

The most disturbing aspect of the Allen story is that the churches in Dallas turned away the family of a prominent man. If they can do that, one wonders how many men and women who are not well known have been turned away. The numbers must be staggering.

I will tell you again, the churches that welcome everyone will be the winners. Isn't it obvious why churches in this nation are declining?

Clark Morphew is an ordained clergyman and is religion writer for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press.