Brentwood's protests have given way to a calmer acceptance of AIDS patients living there

About seven years ago the Reverend Joe Samuel Ratliff had a vision. He saw that God wanted him to expand his church's ministry to people with AIDS. God didn't just want church volunteers to go into the inner city to minister to AIDS patients. God didn't just want the church to continue to open its doors to AIDS patients for meetings. Now God wanted Ratliff's church to bring people with AIDS into this southwest Houston neighborhood, to set them up in transitional housing right next to the church, right in the center of a well-tended middle-class community.

As anyone familiar with the Bible knows, those who feel called by God to carry out certain tasks often find their lives become very uncomfortable. And Ratliff was definitely heading into the lion's den on this one. He was black, and he was Baptist. The African-American culture, in general, isn't very tolerant of homosexuals, Ratliff will tell you. Baptists aren't known to be very tolerant of homosexuals either. Their reading of the Bible tells them God condemns the act. And hating the sin but loving the sinner is beyond the abilities of most people.

And as anyone familiar with churches knows, despite all the talk of God's love for all his children and love-thy-brother admonitions, nasty battles on sacred ground are not a rarity. Churches split over doctrine. They split over minister selection. They split over music. They split over issues large and small, over items petty and portentous.

Project director Willie Sylvester says the community now understands the church's mission.
Houston Press
Project director Willie Sylvester says the community now understands the church's mission.

In this case, they split over what several in the Brentwood Baptist Church saw as the wrongheaded, high-handed actions of a minister who had decided to bring a gay white man's disease into their community and ruin their property values. For some of those living in the immediate Brentwood community, it was an act of betrayal. They had moved here to keep their children safe and protected, and who knew who would be roaming their streets, stepping into their yards.

Cynthia Curry had just returned from living in California to find her mother, a longtime Brentwood Baptist Church member and president of the Brentwood Civic Club, in full battle array.

Intersections were blocked off near the church to keep people with AIDS from coming into the area, Curry remembers. She was shocked.

In California, she and most of her friends and acquaintances knew someone affected by AIDS. "I couldn't believe the community I grew up in was so unaccepting."

Eventually the project went forward after months upon months of public and legal battles. Members left the church. Neighbors moved out. Not all the people who stayed were happy, but emotions cooled a bit, things settled down, ironically helped along by some members of the congregation who died of AIDS, Curry says. The lightning rod for hatred, that gay white man's disease, had somehow mutated into the African-American face of someone they loved. Curry's mother and father both changed their positions on the issue, and eventually their daughter went to work for Brentwood's AIDS project.

Now Joe Ratliff knows the blessing/curse of prophecy. He was ahead of his time, insisting that African-Americans should be concerned about AIDS. In the last few years the disease has exploded in the African-American community. It has devastated Africa and other third-world countries. Black women and children are the new main characters of the tragedy, becoming infected and dying at accelerated rates. People of color have begun talking about racial genocide.

I-told-you-so's don't come any sadder than this.

The evolution of revolution goes through phases planned and unexpected, smooth and shrapnel-filled. Church members talked about the AIDS housing proposal for two years before it reached the final grant stage and went public. As soon as word got out, via the Houston Chronicle, that Houston's Housing and Community Development Department had signed off on a plan to house homeless, transitional AIDS patients, Brentwood residents exploded. A group of Brentwood community leaders went down to a Houston City Council meeting in November 1994, filled the room and convinced the Council to veto the city's promised grant of funding.

The church, in turn, filed three separate complaints in January 1995 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Texas Human Rights Commission. The church also filed a lawsuit against the city in U.S. District Court. The church was said to have a good case since the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities such as AIDS.

It took until the following December, but the city reversed itself and provided the funds to Brentwood. In return, the church withdrew the complaints it had filed under the federal Fair Housing Act. In late August 1997 the AIDS residence facilities were finally opened.

Project W.A.I.T.T. (We're All In This Together) began under the auspices of the Brentwood Community Foundation, a nonprofit group started a few years earlier by the church, when it was told the state doesn't like to hand out its money directly to churches. Ratliff is the foundation's chairman, so the division seems nominal at best. Willie Sylvester, who has been with the program from the start, is the foundation's project director. Besides the cottages, the foundation offers a food pantry, a Wellness Demonstration Project complete with mobile unit, which HUD picked as one of the top 100 projects in the country in 1999, and Project Open Doors, which serves pregnant teens and young adults with HIV.

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