From November 1994 issue of Jubilee.
In 1991 the National Commission on AIDS reported that up to 5.9 percent of inmates entering the nation’s prisons were HIV-positive. In some states, such as New York, that percentage tops 17 percent—a disquieting by-product of harsher sentences for drug users and prison overcrowding. Facilities forced to house two or three times their capacity can become lethal breeding grounds for infectious diseases such as AIDS and HIV-aggravated tuberculosis.
The escalation of AIDS poses a special challenge to Prison Fellowship—to seek out and equip volunteers willing to minister to those shunned by many as modern-day “lepers.” In states with a high incidence of in-prison AIDS, PF staff and volunteers are developing training and educational materials to dispel misunderstandings about the disease, explain appropriate medical precautions, and give guidance on reaching out to those on their deathbeds.
“The despair and lack of hope that accompany the HIV-positive inmate can be overcome by caring Christian volunteers who lovingly share the saving message of Jesus Christ,” says Bob Brunell, PF area director in Los Angeles. But such a ministry calls for special training “because there are many misconceptions concerning the dangers of catching the virus,” he adds. Volunteers need to know the true facts and how to apply that knowledge.”
New York City Area Director Ken Bell believes the church should be taking the lead in addressing the crisis, not trying to play catch-up. “When the AIDS crisis hit our society, my response was like many other Christians’: It’s a problem of the gay community,” says Ken. “But no matter how a person gets it, the Lord has compassion on all suffering people. As Christians we need to be where hurting people are. We need to be where Jesus would be.”
PF volunteer Addis Williams agrees that the church has been slack in facing what is still largely considered a disease of homosexuals and drug users—despite its sweep into the heterosexual female and teenage populations. Their lifestyles are “nonissues” at this stage, says Addis. “These people are dying, and our focus is to help them get ‘home’ safe and sound”—by pointing them to salvation in Christ.
But even for those volunteers who are willing to reach out to AIDS victims, “it’s a razor’s edge ministry,” Addis describes. “You grow to like these people—even to love many of them. And you know from the beginning that they’re going to die. It can hurt very badly. That’s why volunteer burnout in this work is very high—and why complete dependence on the Holy Spirit is key. That and a great deal of prayer.”
But the reward, Addis continues, is seeing “a life turned around, a new heart. God is deeply concerned for these people. And it’s delightful to see the Holy spirit at work in their lives. That’s why we do this.”