In 1987 I was serving as minister of a Presbyterian church in Dunblane, Scotland. The country had been my home since 1972. One evening the news reported the emergence of a new and fatal disease in the United States that was affecting primarily gay men. Accompanying the reportage was a clip from a televised sermon in which the preacher affirmed this illness was a judgment from God on homosexual persons. The manner of delivery was harsh and hateful, and I remember thinking this was not necessarily the best response of the Evangelical church to an emerging problem. Sometime later, while reading the Scriptures, the words “you will work with AIDS patients” came to mind. The impression was so strong and overwhelming, I actually said aloud, “No!” What followed was a remarkable series of coordinated events that made it abundantly clear the words I heard in my mind were a call from God. Harvest, in conjunction with Tenth Presbyterian Church, had gathered enough money to begin an outreach to people with AIDS in the Philadelphia area. There was funding for one year, and eventually, contact was made, and I was offered the position. It was unimaginably difficult to take my wife and family away from all that was dear to us in Scotland, but the move seemed like obedience to a divine call.
The beginning of what became known as Hope was extremely difficult. The gay community did not welcome the involvement of Christians in what was regarded as their issue, and we had to endure a measure of protest and hateful behaviors that were distressing and discouraging. The beginnings of a breakthrough, however, came when a few Christian men dealing with the medical consequences of lifestyle choices came to us for companionship and help. From then on, for fourteen years, with no advertising or programmatic plans, Hope ministered to a wide variety of men, women and children affected by a disease that killed most of them. Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study, but the illness. The initial question we asked was, “what would you like us to do for you in this situation?” In retrospect, what most wanted was companionship shaped by the changing circumstances of their lives. Perhaps our best work was done with the dying. Each individual case was different. Some needed nursing care, especially at night. Others wanted a listening ear, or someone to coordinate with other AIDS agencies. In essence we were a ministry which offered friendship to those who wanted it. The degree of intimacy and demands of these friendships varied widely, but in some cases carried us right to our friends’ deathbeds, gravesides and beyond.
What did we learn during those fourteen excruciatingly difficult years? First, that the church and Christian ministries can and must serve their own, even when sinful choices and destructive behaviors have left them bereft and needy. Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth. Secondly, Christians need never be afraid of engaging creatively with non-Christians in their time of trouble. Myself, our volunteers and staff often had access to situations and places where normally no Christians were welcome, nor our message believed. But as Ambassadors of Christ we were allowed the privilege of representing Him as best we could. Finally, we are never the best judges of the effectiveness or ultimate meaning of our service. We must simply follow where God leads, through good report and bad, trusting Him to use what He chooses for His glory. As one of our volunteers said after the death of a particularly difficult and angry patient: “Even changing diapers is a sacred act.”
And that was Hope. When it became clear at the beginning of the 21st century that AIDS was now a chronic and manageable illness, I realized the reason God called me to work with AIDS patients was over. Often we feel Christian work in which we are heavily invested must perpetuate itself; but the Lord may well have other plans. Now, many years later, I look back on Hope’s ministry with gratitude. All but a few of the Christians and non-Christians we served are gone, but their faces, stories and the lessons learned are ineradicable. The world in which AIDS was the crisis of a moment has changed dramatically, and new issues have taken over the headlines. But the needs of sinful men and women are the same, the Gospel has not lost its ancient power, and Jesus still tells His people to go into that world as His ambassadors.