Ministering to People with AIDS
How do you minister to people with AIDS? You minister to people with AIDS the same as you would minister to anyone else who is facing a chronic or terminal disease. The needs are much the same with the only difference being the stigma attached to this disease. This stigma will play a minor role in ministering to the AIDS patient, however, it creates some special needs unique to AIDS.
Johnny came to my office just a few weeks after he had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had seen an article in the local newspaper about my own journey through AIDS and the ministry it had spawned. He was reaching out to get answers to many of his questions about this disease and what it meant to him. He also needed to identify with someone else who was also infected by the deadly virus. Mostly he was seeking hope.
The marching band Johnny played in during college gave each of its members a nickname. Johnny's was "Chuckles," which suited him perfectly. Johnny could face the most challenging struggles and still find a way to laugh. Beneath the laughter was a young man with some very real hurts, and over the next year he experienced much pain and challenge from his disease.
Johnny was a brand new Christian. Having strayed from the faith of his childhood, Johnny became involved in a lifestyle of homosexuality and drug abuse. It was in this lifestyle that he was infected by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the virus which causes AIDS. He abandoned this lifestyle when he received the news that he had tested positive to the antibodies of HIV commonly known as HIV Positive (HIV+).
Johnny was fortunate to have two wonderful, loving parents who welcomed him into their home once again, being fully aware of his lifestyle. Their desire was to be there for their son regardless of the risks and fears they had. They hoped and prayed that he would straighten out his life but the most important thing was to walk with him in facing the trauma of living with AIDS.
Many people with AIDS face this disease alone. They don't have friends, family, or anyone who will walk with them, who will love them unconditionally and remain consistent in their care. As you minister to the person with AIDS remember that your non-judgmental attitude and your consistent devoted compassion are so vitally important in their lives.
About a week after Johnny moved back into his parents' home, his parents had a pre-planned trip to go on retreat with their church. Johnny knew that if he didn't go with them, they would cancel their plans so, grudgingly, he went along.
While on retreat, Johnny realized he had never truly surrendered his life to God. He didn't know what a relationship with Jesus really was all about. He made a public commitment of his life to Christ and came home a new creation. Johnny cried out to God as David had in Psalm 51:10-13 (NIV):
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.
Johnny finally found the peace and hope that comes from knowing that God's grace and love were his, even with all the bad he had done in his life. The most important thing you can do for the PWA (Person With AIDS) is to share your faith. Introduce them to a loving God who will look beyond their faults and love them, a God who promises eternal life through faith. The same God that saves you from your sin can also set them free from whatever they are facing in their life. How do you do that?
Most people facing death ask the questions: "What's next?" "Is there more?" "Am I ready?" "Is there a heaven or hell?" As you develop a friendship with the PWA, you will have opportunities to discuss many of these things with them. In sharing your personal faith, remember that while sin separates us from God, His grace redeems us from that sin. Talk frankly about your own relationship to Christ.
Attitude is so important. Your motivation and attitude should be to share the blessings of being God's child, not to condemn the sin(s) in someone's life. It is God's Holy Spirit who convicts, not you. The most important thing is to lead them to a relationship with Jesus and allow Him to work in their life. Don't single out a specific sin. For instance, if you know that a PWA was infected through promiscuous sexual activity outside of marriage, don't say "God can save you from your adulterous behavior." Say, "God can save you from your sin no matter what that sin may be." Let them know that Romans 3:23 says "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." You're on the same level as they are. Share also that Romans 6:23 says "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." They don't have to be worthy of that gift, rather God's grace provides it freely to all who call on the name of the Lord. Ephesians 2:8-9 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast." Romans 10:13 "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
Sharing your faith is easy. Your relationship with Jesus and the hope, peace and joy that it brings should be easy to talk about especially with someone who may really be interested in your views on life and death.
Don't forget to listen to what the PWA says. So many times we know we have the answers to their problems and we get so busy trying to convince them, we fail to listen to their response. Sometimes people need time to digest things in their minds. They need time to understand and fully believe that God could really love them individually. Be patient and LISTEN! They will tell you what they need from you.
If they reject your message of faith or even discussion of God, don't abandon them and count them as loss. They may not be ready to face the issues of their own mortality. They may need to see the consistency in your life and that you are who you say you are. I have known several young men who were angry at God and didn't want to share their feelings. I have seen each of them come to a place of peace because of the patience of those who ministered in their lives.
PWA's are grieving their own approaching death so they may be angry at God for "allowing" this to happen. They may be angry at God for "punishing" them. God is big enough to handle their anger. It is a normal phase of grief to be angry at God, yourself, and those around you. The answer is patience. Allow the PWA the chance to experience their grief at their own pace and pray that God will grant them the peace they are desperately seeking.
The PWA feels very vulnerable and doesn't always have a lot of control over many areas of their life. They will need you to be constant and unfailing in your love and care before they can deal with sharing in issues which may cause a great deal of turmoil in their life.
How do you share your faith? With your consistent love, with your constant care, with patience, remembering it's God's grace and His Holy Spirit that save, not you. In other words, you share your faith with a PWA just like you would share it with anyone else.
I met Johnny a week after he committed his life to Christ. Johnny still had not shared with all of his immediate family that he had AIDS and confidentiality was extremely important. Living in a small community outside of the big city, he knew that the "gossip mill" would have news of his illness all over town in a matter of days, which was a terrifying thought to him and his parents. They had read all the horror stories of homes being burned down, people losing their jobs and total isolation. They were adamant that no one needed to know. When someone is diagnosed with the dreaded news that they have AIDS many things flood their minds and lives. Their first instinct is to withdraw and tell no one. When someone is diagnosed with terminal cancer they reach out to others for much needed support in facing their last days. The AIDS patient, most of the time, does not feel the same freedom to reach out for support. They fear rejection; they fear retaliation; they fear exposure of a lifestyle; they fear being asked how they got the disease; they fear being alone. The PWA believes it's better just not to tell anyone and then they won't have to face those fears. The truth is that in most cases they must face them anryay in order to find peace of mind.
If an AIDS patient has trusted you with the news of their AIDS diagnosis, it is an honor. It means they are willing to share the most vulnerable part of their lives with you and to take the risk that you might possibly reject them or expose them. Confidentiality is extremely important. Repeated reassurance that you will be there for them and that anything said in confidence will be kept in confidence is especially important early in your ministry. It will greatly ease their mind.
A PWA needs time to determine whom they can trust with an issue they themselves are so uncertain about dealing with. They will need time to learn and understand their illness themselves before being ready to deal with the questions, fears and emotions of others in facing AIDS. Again, consistency and patience are key elements.
Johnny and his family wanted the opportunity to tell family members themselves about the news of Johnny's infection rather than have them find out through word of mouth. Yet, they weren't ready to do that. They felt ill equipped with answers about the disease and the way Johnny had become infected. They were ashamed and embarrassed. They also felt that the more people who knew Johnny had AIDS, the more idle gossip and misinformation would be given.
I had found, in my own pilgrimage, that sharing my disease with family and friends was a great release and brought untold peace for me and my family. I didn't always feel that way.
Like Johnny, my parents had been there for me from day one. They were always supportive and loving. Together, we decided not to let everyone else in our extended family know I was HIV positive. After all, I had not developed the syndrome of illnesses or conditions that are known of as AIDS so it was easy to hide.
When someone is infected with HIV, it takes many years for the virus to destroy the vast immune system. Unless they are tested, they will show no signs of infection for 5 to 15 years and sometimes longer. Therefore a person can live with this virus for long periods of time, undetected by anyone else. Many live with the hope that they will never progress into AIDS.
This causes confusion for many. When does a person have AIDS? A person is diagnosed with "full blown AIDS" when their immune system becomes weakened enough that their body can no longer fight common infectious germs in their environment. Each one of us comes into contact with enough germs each day to kill us. The immune system is what keeps those germs from causing illness.
As the immune system becomes weaker, the person infected by HIV begins getting sick from these diseases. They are no longer able to naturally fight them off. Because people rarely, if ever, get sick from these infections, doctors can determine that a person has AIDS when they start appearing in the HIV positive individual.
Because of this, it was easy for me to hide my infection from others since my immune system was not weakened to the point I would show any signs of illness. However, in December of 1991, I was diagnosed with full blown AIDS. I had become infected with a disease, histoplasmosis, that people with healthy immune systems could easily fight, but my immune system was no longer strong enough. This infection ravaged my body and within days had begun to destroy every major organ in my body.
Finally the doctor told my parents that she didn't think that I would recover and that it was time to call the family to come say their last good-bye. Now, my parents and I were faced with a burden we could no longer hide and we needed to have the support of our friends and loved ones. We began to reach out and tell others that I had AIDS and was not expected to live. Instead of the rejection we expected, we found that our church, our friends and our family rallied around us and gave us the support we so desperately needed.
People began to pray. They began to pray that God would heal and preserve my life. AII across the nation prayers began going up to God that He would step in and do what the doctors couldn't. God answered those prayers and a few days later I was well enough to go home from the hospital. God healed me of histoplasmosis and has preserved my health since. I still have AIDS. I have almost no immune system at all, yet God's grace continues to keep me healthy and active most of the time.
I wanted to share this same peace with Johnny and his parents but I knew that they needed time just like I did. I began by sharing my own story. They needed to grasp onto the hope that the same could happen in their lives.
Step by step, we began finding ways for them to build a support system around themselves. We began with their minister. They were so uncertain. When the day came that they had scheduled to meet with their minister, Johnny's mom literally became ill and they almost canceled their meeting.
Johnny believed that what they were doing was good and necessary. He had a real peace about it and urged his parents to go ahead and face their fears.
Their minister was stunned and saddened to learn of Johnny's illness. He cried as they shared with him the news that Johnny had been diagnosed with AIDS. He assured them that it would be kept confidential and that he loved them. He would support them through their journey. He also made himself available if they had any needs. As a family, they were incredulous that their minister would have so much compassion and love. They said to me, "I don't know what I expected him to say, but his tears said so much." He grieved with them. He loved them and pledged to be a part of the support that they were building around themselves.
The next step was to include their family. As they began sharing with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, they found the same love and willingness to stand behind and beside them. From these positive experiences they were then able to focus on reaching out further. Knowing that they had a measurable amount of support, it became less fearful to reach out to others.
About a month later I was scheduled to speak at a church in a small country town to share my testimony. I asked Johnny if he would go with me since the trip was going to be a long one. He agreed to go. As we visited on the way, I asked Johnny if he wanted to say something to the church about his own testimony. He agreed and felt that he would like to do that. As Johnny and I shared our personal testimonies of faith, many in the church were moved with compassion. The encouragement they gave Johnny and me was incredible. Johnny had his first glimpse that God can use AIDS as a tool for good in building His kingdom. He was beginning to understand the realities of Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 it says "...there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me lest I should be exalted above measure. Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my sickness, that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (KJV). God has provided many opportunities for me to share my experience with others. He has taken the tragedy and despair of AIDS and turned it into a powerful tool of his grace and mercy.
In sharing my story with others I have seen many come to a deeper relationship with God. I have seen young people commit their lives to waiting until they are married to have sex and avoiding the risks of also becoming infected with this virus. I have seen my own relationship with God take on a new intimacy I might never have experienced without AIDS. While AIDS is a disease of death, it also teaches us how to really live! AIDS has brought me closer to my family and has been a catalyst to repair so many relationships. That is what Paul means about power perfected in weakness. That is why he says "I will rather boast about my sickness..."
I have learned that God is bigger than all life's problems and troubles. He is bigger than AIDS. When I thought my life was over he taught me how to live and continues to protect my body from death.
AIDS has become more than just...
In my life it now is an...
AIDS has taught me that if I will just submit my life, my frustrations, my problems, my worries and fears to God on a daily basis, He is faithful to meet all my needs and I am able to "boast about my sickness that the power of Christ may dwell in me."
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a minister was this. "What are you doing for Jesus?" I needed to be active in building God's kingdom. But I have AIDS, what can I do? AIDS does not limit God. He loved me in spite of my faults and wanted to use me for His glory because I had surrendered my life to him. I had all the same opportunities to serve God as all His other children.
As long as I was caught up in myself, my own pain, my own fears and my self pity, I experienced the despair so often associated with AIDS. When I put my eyes on Jesus and began serving him and others, then I found the "peace which passes understanding." Johnny was beginning to grasp onto the idea that he was a worthy servant in God's kingdom.
Johnny and I traveled with our families and shared our testimonies in different churches where we found encouragement and saw God mightily move amongst His people.
Johnny was glad to be able to use his testimony for good and for God's glory. One of his favorite verses was Isaiah 40:30-31:
Even youths grow tired and wear/, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Johnny was now able to walk and not be faint.
Johnny died from AIDS related lymphoma, July 14, 1994. His last days were filled with love and peace. He used every opportunity to share his faith with others and had such a sweet peaceful spirit that the hospital workers knew his life was different. They had seen many AIDS patients come and go but none like Johnny. The love, the support and the overwhelming sense of peace were unique to them. Even in his death God used him to bring hope to others.
I have seen many other families over the past three years who were able to move beyond their fears and develop the support system they desperately needed. As each of them has begun to reach out they have found love and acceptance. Our monthly support group has also been a lifeline to many who need time before sharing with others the burdens facing their family. Check in your area to see if there are any Christian support groups. CASA, Christian AIDS Services Alliance has been established to provide referral information of the ministries across the U.S. which provide support, care and information from a Christian perspective. If there is no established ministry in your courage the PWA to reach out to others with this disease and learn all they can about the experiences of others. Their doctor may be a good source.
For PWAs and their families learning about the disease process and "how, what, and why" the virus destroys the immune system is extremely helpful in giving a measure of security and a sense of control. As they learn that they Iiving with AIDS and that all aspects of the disease are not beyond their control, they find some peace. Helpful resources are listed at the end of this chapter.
Some practical advice for ministering to the AIDS patient and their family is helpful. These are some tips I have found useful in my ministry.
- Visit - If hospitalized, short visits but frequent. If not hospitalized have a weekly time that you get together for a meal or just sit and talk. (Or whatever you deem adequate).
- Minister to the family or "partner" - It gives the patient peace of mind to know their family is cared for.
- Offer to stay with the patient at night when they are hospitalized. It gives the loved ones a chance to rest if they are keeping a bedside vigil.
- Offer to stay with patient while loved ones go out to eat, do grocery shopping, do laundry, etc. When you visit call ahead to see if there are any needs.
- Help the PWA discover all they can about their disease.
- Be a good listener. Listen without offering advice or trying to fix the frustration or pain. Listen for subtle clues about the patient's emotions. Ask questions which pro- mote conversation or prod the PWA to express their feelings.
- Don't be judgmental.
- Bring reading materials or music when you visit.
- Pray with the AIDS patient. They will appreciate it in most cases.
- Look for opportunities to talk about spiritual matters.
- Tell the PWA when you will return and then be there.
- Consistency and patience are vital.
- Make sure they have your phone number easily accessible and make yourself available anytime they just need to talk.
- Encourage a PWA to do as much for themselves as they can.
- Offer help that relates to the situation of a person preparing to die. Things like composing final letters, planning funerals, wills, and other things that are difficult for the AIDS patient to initiate.
Ministering to the AIDS patient and their families is a joyous opportunity to share in the comfort that Christ has given to all of us. It says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
The AIDS Epidemic; A Balance Between Compassion and Justice by Glenn Woods, MD, and John Dietrich, MD. An excellent book with disease information and helpful advice on issues surrounding AIDS.
Christians in the Age of AIDS by Shepherd and Anita Smith: A book which offers AIDS information and instructs Christians for response.
CASA, Christian AIDS Services Alliance
PO BOX 3612
San Rafael, CA 94912-3612
Phone referrals: (410) 268-3442
Christian AIDS Network
1411N Classen Blvd. #111
Oklahoma City, OK 73106
Phone: (405) 525-3733
AIDS Resource Hotline
Churches of Christ
Phone: (214) 669-AIDS