A Religious Embrace, Unexpected

By Gabi P. Remz

George Garcia was shocked to see a man he recognized walking in.

“Can I get some of these?” the man asked, pointing to a large crate of condoms just past the door.

“We can give you boxes full,” Garcia said, before walking to the storage room at the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN) in Edgewater, where he has volunteered for six years.

Garcia returned to the lobby and handed the man four large boxes.

The man thanked Garcia and walked out. Garcia stood still, astonished.

By most standards, Garcia’s exchange at TPAN was quite typical. The clinic serves people with HIV, and Garcia estimated that TPAN distributes more than 1,000 condoms a day.

But the reason for Garcia’s surprise was simple: the man was no ordinary client.
He was a pastor, leading a church just a few blocks away.

“Religious groups…they don’t want me to bring condoms into church,” Garcia said. “It’s just their belief.”

Lately, though, churches and synagogues are working to prove statements like Garcia’s wrong, just as the pastor did three weeks ago. In Edgewater today, religious groups’ cooperation with the HIV positive community is not hidden or taboo—it is a significant aspect of their charitable work.

And many religious leaders say there is little option but to embrace the HIV positive community. Nearly two percent of Edgewater’s more than 56,000 residents are HIV positive, compared to the national average of .02 percent, according to a Chicago Department of Public Health report. That population, compounded with Edgewater’s large and vocal LGBT community, makes HIV causes a priority.

“[HIV] is one of those issues that’s kind of a no-brainer. Of course we want people to be tested, we want people to know their status, we want to support research,” said Rev. Monte Johnson, a pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church.

And so, churches and synagogues scattered throughout Edgewater act accordingly.

Johnson said he encourages and supports the many members of his congregation who volunteer or donate to HIV-focused charities, like Center on Halsted (an LGBT community center) and the Brown Elephant (a second-hand store whose proceeds go towards an HIV clinic).

That support strikes extremely close to Johnson, as his wife, Kari, has been heavily involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS. In July, she participated in the Ride for AIDS Chicago, a 2-day, 200-mile bike ride. Kari raised more than $1,000 for AIDS research—money she gathered mostly from members of her congregation. Immanuel’s choir director, Scott Weidler, led Kari’s support staff at the event.

“We have a large amount of support in our congregation for gay and lesbian rights, so [AIDS research] was a pretty easy cause to sell to them,” said Kari, who has been married to Monte for eight years.

Immanuel is under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which recognizes gay marriages, ordains openly gay clergy and is considered one of the more liberal religious governing bodies in the United States.

Still, Johnson emphasized the fact that his church does not work with HIV-focused organizations in any official capacity—because that, he said, might be pushing his congregants too far.

Andy Shedd is an associate pastor at Edgewater Baptist Church, which preaches an official policy of sex as being only between man and woman.

However, Shedd said his congregation has several openly gay members and pointed to a congregant who had a long battle with AIDS in the mid ‘90s, causing the community to come together and discuss how to fight the disease. Since then, members have been encouraged to volunteer and donate to local charities, which can include LGBT and HIV positive-focused organizations, though they are not specifically directed there.

“We don’t have an official…relationship with anyone from [the LGBT and HIV positive] communities,” said Shedd, who has been a member of Edgewater Baptist his entire life. “But our hope is that our congregation reflects our community.”

But some, like Pastor Michael Fick of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, have actively sought to bring the HIV positive community to the congregation.

Fick, who is openly gay, has been at Ebenezer for less than a year, but in that time, he has created a series of initiatives to serve the LGBT and HIV positive communities. About a third of Ebenezer is LGBT, according to Fick, and many volunteer at the Center on and the Brown Elephant. The church also sends volunteers to support groups for LGBT youth.

“We try to be open to what’s important to people in our community and to make sure we’re reflecting all of our values,” Fick said. “Certainly one of our values is offering spaces and creating opportunity for engagement.”

Fick points to the church’s free HIV testing program as a major step. Ebenezer has several members who are openly HIV positive, and so when Center on Halsted approached Fick about teaming up to offer free and confidential testing, congregants gave their full support.

Fick believes hosting the tests in a religious environment sends a message of support difficult to find elsewhere.

“[The HIV tests] would be something unexpected in a church, based on the experiences that some people in our congregation had at other communities,” Fick said. “Being that [those communities] were antithetical not only to LGBT people, but in particular to people who are HIV positive.”

Similarly strong support comes from Congregation Or Chadash, a Reform synagogue that describes itself on its website as “serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual Jews, their families, friends and loved ones.”

Or Chadash’s rabbi, Larry Edwards, said his congregation has frequent programming at Center on Halsted, and congregants view the AIDS Run and Walk Chicago as one of the year’s most important events.

“Those issues are front and center, they’re our priorities,” Edwards said. “AIDS and HIV are a real part of our communal memory and the present consciousness of many, many of our members.”

Representatives from several Edgewater Catholic churches and the Ismaili Center, a Shi’a Muslim congregation, declined comment for this story.

All of this leads back to Garcia, who said he was scolded by clergy at various churches in other parts of Chicago for asking if he could distribute condoms to members. Eventually, Garcia, who is gay and became infected with HIV in 1991, became less involved with religion.

But when Garcia saw the pastor take condoms from TPAN that day, he was reminded of an important message, one that he was thrilled to see religious groups in Edgewater take quite seriously.

“I cannot stop people from having sex,” Garcia said. “What I can stop them from is giving the disease they have to others.”

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