The Battle Over Brentwood

To one side, it's a question of power; to the other, it's a question of homophobia. For both it's a question of whether a community, once sundered, can ever be bound together again.

"The pastor had asked over the pulpit that anybody interested in an AIDS ministry come back that evening," Rosetta Thompson recalls. "About 20 or 30 people went. There were a lot of churches that had volunteer groups that took care of AIDS. I think FIRM wanted to get Wheeler Avenue, Windsor Village and Brentwood -- the city's three largest black churches -- to participate, too."

In 1989, the black community was just starting to acknowledge the threat of AIDS. Black homosexuality was not widely discussed, and there had been denial by many that what was then seen as a gay disease could harm blacks. But following the FIRM representative's talk, about 75 people, Thompson among them, signed up to clean house, bring food and provide other basic services for African-American AIDS patients. Today, about 30 to 40 from Brentwood Baptist volunteer on a regular basis.

Those first volunteers had to overcome their own doubts. To the great annoyance of some Brentwood residents, Ratliff bluntly states that homophobia is especially strong among blacks. "The gay stigma is probably more scorned than in the white community," he says. "Because of all the aberrations that go on in our community, this is probably the last thing you want."

Thompson agrees, but thinks religion has more to do with it. "I'm a Sunday school teacher," she says. "I actually would tell my Sunday school class that the Lord made men and he made women, that the vagina was for sex, not the anus. I didn't take into account hemophilia or anything else. I was talking out of the side of my head, and I was a nurse. All of a sudden I got convicted. The Lord said, 'I am the judge, not you.'"

"I have not changed my basis," Thompson adds matter-of-factly. "According to the Bible, homosexuality is wrong. But my duty is to help people with AIDS, no matter what caused it. The point is, the person is ill, the person needs your help."

For reasons like these, Ratliff's aggressive AIDS activism has made his church relatively unique. As things at Brentwood Baptist tend to do, the nascent AIDS program quickly grew large. Today, specially trained respite teams log thousands of hours a year. Two church-sponsored vans, running 40 hours a week, ferry AIDS patients to their appointments all over Houston. Brentwood Baptist also runs a food pantry for AIDS patients, as well as AIDS support and grief-handling groups. As if this AIDS activism were not unusual enough, the church also had a highly visible leader, counseling minister Don Watkins, who suffered from AIDS. Watkins, who died last year, participated in services from the pulpit until the week before he died. "I don't know if he was gay," Thompson says, a little uneasily. "We didn't ask."

Finally, in 1992, Ratliff led several church members to urge the church's board of trustees to include AIDS care in an elaborate, 25-acre community service complex the church was then planning. The board voted for AIDS cottages to be part of the complex, which also included a gymnasium and senior citizens housing.

By 1993, the church had purchased the land for its compound in the shadow of the sanctuary's vaulting brown dome. Shortly before, in 1992, Brentwood had been one of about 200 nonprofits invited to apply for $3.16 million in federal AIDS housing funds being administrated by Harris County. Brentwood Baptist tried for a grant, but failed -- because, Harris County officials explained to Ratliff, administrators were leery of handing state money to a religious group. So the church took the common route of forming a secular, nonprofit group to petition for the needed $625,000. The nonprofit Brentwood Economic Community Development Corporation, though nominally separate, was just an instrument to smooth the way for funding: Ratliff is president of its board. In 1993, the church's AIDS project got its money.

The funds would have built four bungalows for 18 residents, to be staffed full-time by volunteers. The residents, Ratliff insists, would have been carefully selected by caseworkers who would look for AIDS patients with little risk of behavior problems.

It's a detail that Ratliff gives after the fact. Before things exploded, church activists did little by way of community outreach to explain their project. Most of the talk stayed within the church. Then, once the grant committee and Houston's Housing and Community Development Department both signed off on the church's plan, it was announced in the Chronicle. That was last October 19, and that's when things went awry. It was then that Brentwood residents such as David Syrus, who's a member of the Hiram Clarke Civic Association, say they first heard of the plans to build AIDS housing only yards away from their hand-clipped lawns with pansy plantings and plaster statuettes -- and immediately across the street from their public elementary school.

The consensus of values that had bound church and community together broke down badly at a November 1 City Council "pop-off," the Tuesday afternoon forum in which citizens air gripes. Rosetta Thompson didn't go to Council that day, but her neighbor David Syrus went. So did about 20 leaders of various Brentwood community groups, who filed into City Council's cramped temporary quarters at City Hall Annex to fight the perceived threat of AIDS patients in their neighborhood.

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