For Friday 13 March 2020: Second Friday of Lent
Whilst on the front porch this morning enjoying the golden Spring sun, I realized I learned to be a pastor at the height of a pandemic. In 1989, the year I was ordained a deacon in the then Central Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church was the end of my second year of seminary. The total number of people diagnosed with AIDS reached 100,000 in the United States. I have been asking myself, what did I learn about ministry in a pandemic back then?
1. Do not be afraid. Fear of people with the virus is not the proper course of action. The isolation people experience because of fear only fuels further fear and irrational actions. There were serious proposals to sequester all people with HIV away from the general public. We had learned enough to know that we didn’t need to do that. Being fearful does not outweigh being faithful and just.
2. We had to find new ways of doing ministry with persons living with HIV/AIDS. Questions arose about taking the sacrament from a common cup out of which everyone took a sip of actual wine. It required patient, persistent and consistent messaging to help congregations and patients understand that in that situation there was no risk of infection. It spurred new ministries to emerge food and nutrition programs, housing, mental health care, pastoral care, and more. It helped connect congregations with their communities, and the marginalize, again.
3. We learned and used prudent precautions appropriate to the situation. In the 1980s and 1990s appropriate precautions was learning safer sex practices as a culture generally; we hadn’t done that previously. It led to the very prudent education of all high school students about HIV and other STI’s in high school today. The lesson is about using prudent precautions appropriate to the situation. Today, washing hands, coughing or sneezing into an elbow, tissue, or handkerchief instead of your hands or out into the room, and using hand sanitizer is the prudent and appropriate precaution. When I was in school, it meant learning to touch another human without fear, not touching a person with AIDS. I had to learn to see humanity and human suffering in a new way. Precaution means seeing the presence of Christ in the person who is sick.
4. We learned we had to educate ourselves and others. When I returned to Illinois after my seminary days in Connecticut, I was asked to join the regional HIV prevention and planning board for the Illinois Department of Public Health. Our goal was to educate. Education was the best prevention method, and it still is. Our faith is not a blind and unthinking faith but a faith which is informed.
5. We learned, yet again, the need for prayer. The HIV crisis drove me to my knees. I had to spend a great deal of time pouring my heart out to God. I was angry. I was afraid. I was confused. I felt lost when several friends tested positive, all in 1989. I learned my need to spend time with God in prayer. I learned my need of the refreshing wind of the Spirit to rekindle hope. And I learned just how amazingly and abundantly God supplies all our needs.
I learned how to be a pastor during a pandemic. I learned many things, but most importantly, I learned how to be more faithful, more patient, more kind, and more generous. I learned to follow Jesus in many new ways. I’m grateful for what I learned and the gift of God’s abiding present through it all.
We learned many other things from the HIV/AIDS pandemic, too. The few things I have named are the five most important learnings I had. There are many other lessons to learn still.