AIDS – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – was identified in June 1981. The news of this modern plague created an intense level of anxiety, especially because so many things about it were unknown at the outset: what caused it, how it was transmitted, what could be done to treat those infected. Sadly, the Church mostly lagged behind, especially in showing compassion and giving care to those infected or affected.
In 1987, I heard Harold Ivan Smith talk about Tear-Catchers, one of his many books on dealing with grief, loss, and suffering as well as ministering to those in distress. He shared how tears form, and the different chemical compositions of various kinds of tears. I was struck when he talked about tears of emotion, which have a particular compound in them such that they aren’t reabsorbed into our bottom eyelids, but roll down our cheeks instead. “It’s like God meant for such tears to be seen by others,” he noted.
In the middle of his talk, he spoke about different ministries of compassion. Then he calmly said something along the lines of this: “You know, we are six years into the AIDS epidemic, and many people face passing into eternity, potentially without Christ, but the Church has pushed people away. Where would Jesus be in the midst of this, and what should we as Christians do? Someone needs to do something.”
No guilt, just statements of facts. But those three little sentences about a topic no one in churches was talking about reset the course of my life for the next 10 years. I did not know a single person with full-blown AIDS at the time, or even anyone infected with HIV. But I knew in my spirit that I was one of the someones being called to do at least something.
So, I started studying everything I could about HIV/AIDS, went to some basic trainings put on by local hospitals and non-profits, and kept watching for some kind of ministry training to engage with specifically Christian perspectives. Finally, in 1989, I heard about a Christian AIDS ministry conference in Seattle. I knew I needed to be there. And there I met people with HIV infection, ARC (AIDS Related Complex, a term then used for an in-between stage), and full-blown AIDS. Having faces of friends to put with this disease changed it from something abstract out there in the world to someones concretely in my world.
This led to my writing and editing resource materials for ministry to those infected or affected by HIV; compiling the communiqués for a small national referral network of AIDS ministries; and eventually spearheading what apparently was the first seminary training conference on HIV ministry for academic credit – that was groundbreaking in 1996, 15 years into the epidemic. Which all makes sense with my gifts and abilities. as I often end up working in support roles so that others can do front-line service.
In 1997 I was led into other areas of ministry, but took into those experiences what I had learned – including the following snapshots of ministries of compassion in the Scriptures and early church history, which I shared in the AIDS ministry newsletters.
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Dionysius of Alexandria, 3rd Century Church
The following excerpt comes from the Easter Letter of Dionysius of Alexandria, in A.D. 263. This reading comes from Eusebius, Church History, 7:22, as quoted in Power in the Blood: A Christian Response to AIDS, by David Chilton (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, 1987), page 174.
The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves, having transferred to themselves their deaths. …
Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation; so that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of martyrdom. …
But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.
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“Gamblers of Christ”
The following excerpt comes from William Barclay’s “Daily Study Bible Series” of commentaries, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (The Westminster Press, Revised Edition, 1975, page 50).
Barclay’s own translation of Philippians 2:30 reads thus: “Welcome [Epaphroditus] in the Lord with all joy, and hold such men in honour, because he came near to death because of his work for Christ, hazarding his life, that he might fill up that part of your service to me which you were personally unable to supply.” His comments state:
There is a word in this passage which later had a famous usage. The Authorized Version speaks of Epaphroditus not regarding his life; the Revised Standard Version uses risking his life; we have translated it hazarding his life. The word is the verb paraboleuesthai; it is a gambler’s word and means to stake everything on a turn of the dice. Paul is saying that for the sake of Jesus Christ Epaphroditus gambled his life. In the days of the Early Church there was an association of men and women called the parabolani, the gamblers. It was their aim to visit the prisoners and the sick, especially those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases. In A.D. 252 plague broke out in Carthage; the heathen threw out the bodies of their dead and fled in terror. Cyprian, the Christian bishop, gathered his congregation together and set them to burying the dead and nursing the sick in that plague-stricken city; and by so doing they saved the city, at the risk of their lives, from destruction and desolation.
There should be in the Christian an almost reckless courage which makes him ready to gamble with his life to serve Christ and men.
The original edition of his commentary adds one sentence to the above description: “The Church always needs parabolani, the gamblers of Christ.” Although the work is hard and the risks are minimal, the rewards of showing Christlikeness during times of plague are eternal.
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ABOUT THIS SERIES. Our national election was Tuesday, November 8. I spent much of the next day following up on election analysis, messaging friends to be supportive as we processed the results, and thinking about what I could contribute that would be constructive in such a time as this. I decided to post a series of articles on experiences of peacemaking, and what it means to be a person of peace who welcomes others, stands against injustice, and challenges people and systems that cause harm. I do not know how many posts I will have in this series, but already have selected some pieces that I’ve not previously published.