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Ministry in Plague Time

Ministry in Plague Time: Will the Church Stand behind those who have AIDS? (1987, August 7). Christianity Today.


As of June 1, 1987, one to three million United States citizens are AIDS carriers. In fact, 100,000 to 300,000 are showing signs of ARC (AIDS Related Complex), a milder form of immune deficiency which can develop into full-blown AIDS or return to the carrier stage. The Center for Disease Control further reveals that more than 40,000 adults have developed full-blown AIDS and 58% of them have died. By 1991, there will be 270,000 cumulative cases, 55% of whom will have died of AIDS—54,000 of them in that year alone! In five years nearly every American will know someone who has died of AIDS.

Experts agree this is a new plague, but they can only speculate the extent of the epidemic. Andres Tapia, in a section entitled, "High-Risk Ministry," writes, "AIDS, the new plague, will increasingly draw on the compassion of our churches." The following selectively summarizes what Tapia discovered among Christians and churches wrestling with AIDS.


After the initial shock of learning that he was suffering from terminal AIDS, Jerome approached three churches asking to find peace with God and be buried by the church. All three refused to consider his request. Planning to commit suicide that weekend, he walked into the office of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. When his wife later asked him if he was sure that he had given the right response to Jerome, Father Ted Karpf replied, "No, I’m not sure. All I know is that a man asked us to keep faith with him. How can I tell him no?" Twenty people in the parish organized themselves to care for Jerome, to pray and support him. The issue of the communion chalice was more difficult. Although there are no reports of contagion passed through sharing utensils or communion cups, people were nervous. Soon, two-thirds of the parishioners had left, decreasing church income. St. Thomas was forced to reconstitute itself. Jerome became a member of this new church the last Sunday he attended (with a 106 degree fever). A few weeks later he was dead.

"Don’t judge me," he had said, "I’m living under my own judgment. What I need is for you to walk with me." Today, there are again 200 people worshipping at St. Thomas the Apostle, which has an active ministry to those suffering from AIDS in the Dallas area. They are learning to live through painful deaths as a community of faith.

Another AIDS victim is Jim Jackson, a 38-year-old Vietnam veteran. "In a way—and I know this sounds crazy—I’m thankful for the disease. It has drawn me closer to the Lord. I’ve had a lot of things to deal with: the guilt of maybe having passed AIDS to someone else; fear of how those in the church are going to react; anger toward myself for doing drugs and being promiscuous; anger at whoever gave it to me. But I really can’t blame anyone else but myself. I’m reaping my own judgment now. I hope people will be able to see faith in action in my death."

Harold Ivan Smith, of the helping organization Tear Catchers, says, "This is an incredible hour for the church...People are dying lonely and desperate for eternal hope and care during their last days on earth. The church is in a unique position to minister to them because of our belief in healing (whether physical or eternal), our belief in comforting, and our understanding of grace." As Surgeon General Koop said, "We are fighting a disease, not people."

Pastor Dennis Sawyer of Chicago’s inner city Philadelphia Church adds, "I know as much as there is to know about AIDS due to all the ministries our church is getting involved in, but little fears crop up about sharing utensils or pillows with someone with AIDS."

Dr. Alan Wright, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, "Obstacles aside, we still have to respond to Jesus’ call to minister to those who are considered the outcasts of society. It is clear that Christ, with his ministry among lepers, prostitutes, and demon-possessed people, never discriminated on the basis of disease, sexuality, or action."

Tapia’s section contains three other powerful stories and an eight-step plan for involvement.


Another helpful section in this Christianity Today special issue is David L. Schiedermayer’s article "Choices in Plague Time." This physician examines his own fears, reviews other plagues in history, and contrasts the persecution of scapegoats with the compassion for victims experienced in the church of past times. He admits, "AIDS is a disease that appeals to Pharisees. One of my first thoughts when I began taking care of James was to thank God that I was not like him...At first I tried to dismiss James’ disease as somehow different from other diseases because he acquired AIDS through promiscuous homosexual activity...And then I remembered the moral Jesus added at the end of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican: ‘Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ "



  1. This article can be used with groups of all reasonable ages—with or without religious commitment. Its story and quotations are sure to produce serious, and possibly heated, discussion. These pages take people to the heart of the AIDS. There are three different aspects of this problem:
  2. Human or Christian response to those with AIDS.
  3. Handling sexual appetites and drug addictions.
  4. Philosophy of natural consequences (the sensitive matter of what some have called "nature’s revenge").
  5. Consideration of how AIDS victims should be cared for should not be diverted by discussion of the last point. That should be a separate and less significant study.