LGBTQ Religious Archives Network (LGBTQ-RAN) held an "AIDS, Activism and American Christianity: A Conversation" virtual webinar on May 5. The event focused on Christian activism during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.
LGBTQ-RAN is, according to its website, "an innovative venture in preserving history and encouraging scholarly study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) religious movements around the world. LGBTQ-RAN has a two-fold basic purpose. First, it assists LGBTQ religious leaders and groups in determining how best to preserve their records and papers in appropriate repositories. Second, LGBTQ-RAN provides an electronic information clearinghouse for these archival collections and other historical data about LGBTQ religious history for the use of historians, researchers and other interested persons."
Panelists included Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rev. Canon Ted Karpf and Rev. Dr. Steve Pieters. Boston University Health Humanities Project founder, historian and author Anthony Petro Ph.D. moderated the event.
Ahead of the conversation, LGBTQ-RAN Executive Director Mark Bowman spoke about the work LGBTQ-RAN does.
Petro then asked how each person got involved with HIV/AIDS work.
Flunder said HIV/AIDS work has been a part of her life for 35 years and calls it a continuing pandemic especially in parts of Africa where her staff does its testing. She added that during a recent trip to Uganda, out of the 1000 people tested about 25 of them were HIV positive. Flunder said she initially got involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy to break the stigma around the disease and because she was losing friends. She spoke about her Pentecostal upbringing and how she experienced exile from them due to the fact that she is a same-gender loving woman and wanted to become a pastor.
Pieters said he got involved shortly after being diagnosed in 1982 with what they called HIV/AIDS at the time, GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome). He added that his initial illness lasted the better part of two years and was given eight months to live. Pieters said his pastor at the time invited him to preach the Easter sermon and calls that gesture "one of the best gifts anyone has given me" and this alongside what his doctor told him about not giving up helped him immensely. He added that the lack of information about AIDS early on led to fear which meant that it took three months after he was diagnosed before a Deacon would come to his house to give him communion. Pieters credits the lesbians who helped him with grocery store trips, understanding how to cope with AIDS and for their company.
Karpf said he was asked to help a failing parish in Houston in the early 1980s and this is how he got involved with the local LGBTQ community due to their proximity to his church. He added that right away people in his church suddenly got sick and died and no one knew why at the time. Karpf said that in early 1984 a man named Jerome with AIDS came to him and asked him if he could die in his church because he had been rejected by multiple churches in the area. He agreed right away to welcome Jerome and also asked what the church could do to help him. This is the moment that began Karpf's journey into HIV/AIDS activism. Karpf set up a care network within the church for Jerome and the AIDS patients that followed and also learned the ins and outs of the healthcare system to help those who had no knowledge of how to navigate things.
Petro talked about the Christian right calling AIDS "the wrath of God" and how successful they were in demonizing people with AIDS yet this panel exists to send the opposite message out into the world. He then asked how the panelists have been able to do this outreach work as gay Christians.
Flunder said there is a juxtaposition between the two groups and cited when the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to protest in San Francisco and how her church responded which led to them canceling the protest. She said that the work of churches is to "provide more tables and more chairs" not ostracize people.
Pieters said he went through thoughts that his AIDS diagnosis was "God's punishment" for being gay. He added that the church's role is not to rescue people, it is to be with them while they are at their most vulnerable state. Karpf said his "calling was to bring hope even in the face of death." He also preaches in the mode of Peter Pan
Karpf spoke about the commonality between him, Pieters and Flunder which is their faith and a collaborative and cooperative leadership style that is never based in fear. He said this has allowed them to continue their activism that works toward advancing freedom, justice, dignity and respect for all humans.
Other topics of discussion included resources to deal with grief that includes being surrounded by community, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and de-stigmatizing faith.
See lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/ .