By the Rev. Lynn Edwards, Founder of the Shepherd Wellness Community
My destiny in life remained a mystery to me until I heard hints about a strange disease "supposedly just affecting gay men." Something stirred inside of me. I always knew, from my teenage years, that I was interested in men rather than women, but I was so far inside the closet that the FBI and CIA together could not have found me. As I reflect on my life, I see how God used this to enable me to have a unique ministry.
I somehow got invited (or did I invite myself?) to an informational meeting of the recently formed Pitt Men’s Study. When I arrived, people were sharing testimonies about what it was like to live with what was then being called HTLV-3 disease. They expressed the need for a social place where they could bring their loved ones. One of the attendees looked at me — the only identifiable clergy present — and added, "We also need a place of gentle spirituality." I said that I could provide such a place. In hindsight, I figured if any such refuge was a "safe place," it would be a church. I did this on my own, without talking to anyone at the church. I just announced that I had made the offer and that was the way it was going to be.
Cyndee Klemanski, Dr. Bill Brandon and six young men organized the first meeting. They chose the name "Shepherd Wellness Center " (later changed to Shepherd Wellness Community) after the Church of the Good Shepherd, my church in the Hazelwood section of the city, about ten minutes from Oakland. Out of the first meetings came the idea that it should be a place to share meals and show that we weren’t afraid of eating together. The gatherings should be on Fridays, when young and not-so-young gay men would go out to the bars.
Fear was the operative word twenty-five years ago. It was a time when persons with AIDS had their homes torched in Florida. There were demonstrations against Ryan White and other hemophiliac children with HIV/AIDS who attempted to go to school.
When we began, I would call the police precinct every Friday evening and ask them to watch over The Church of the Good Shepherd on their rounds of the neighborhood, so that there would be no damage to the cars. At first they kept watch from a "safe distance." I later learned they were equipped with rubber suits and gloves in case they had to come in contact with us.
Over several years, the police slowly got over their fears. One one occasion, they entered the social hall to tell us that freezing rain had come, and while the roads were okay around the church, the sidewalks were dangerous. The police took our arms and helped people to their cars.
The first holiday party was a chaotic scene. We paid for a catered dinner, but when the caterer discovered that there were people in the church who had AIDS, he dropped the food off in the snow, about twenty-five feet away from the door, and would go no further. Dinner was a little late that night because we had to reheat it.
If fear was the operative word, loneliness was a close runner-up. In those early years, people often lived only weeks or months after being diagnosed. I remember a time when I was doing a funeral nearly every other week for someone who died from the results of the virus. Often, no family member was present. I was told more than once, "He made his bed, now let him lie in it."
Some clergy were frightened of visiting the hospital rooms of patients dying of AIDS complications. Comments I heard included "doctors don’t know everything" and "some experts are saying that the disease is airborne." Even some MDs were repeating this, stirring public fear. When clergy did visit, some were intent on getting patients to confess their sin of being gay so that they wouldn’t go to hell. It was because of this that I, along with Rev. Howard Cherry and a few other pastors, formed the Ministerial Network on AIDS.
Although society has become more accepting of people with HIV/AIDS and the public has become more educated about the disease, I worry that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. One sees fewer red ribbons. There is now the idea that the AIDS crisis is over. People, especially between the ages of 18 and 24, are returning to unsafe sex practices. Often the mindset is "by the time I get sick there will be medicine to keep me well."
Now, to be sure, AIDS has become a "somewhat" manageable disease. People with the virus are returning to a "somewhat" normal life. But AIDS is still a deadly virus, and life for those infected is never completely normal; strict regimens of medicines that need to be taken. I do not see a cure or vaccine on the immediate horizon. But AIDS is becoming manageable. Every year new combinations are developed and people with HIV/AIDS are often able to return to work.
Early on in our history, our name was changed from The Shepherd Wellness Center to the Shepherd Wellness Community. People infected and affected by the disease need to bond together for support. Providing a caring and supportive community is what The Shepherd Wellness Community does so well. One person can say to another, "I know where you are because I’ve been there (or I am there)."
–Courtesy Shepherd Wellness Community, Scott Peterman, Executive Director