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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.
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.
As part of the latter effort, another cottage is about to open that will house homeless pregnant teens and young women. The plan is to give them a place to stay during their pregnancy and for six weeks after giving birth, then set them up in their own apartment elsewhere.
Ratliff acknowledges that if he had it to do over again, he would have held church/community meetings explaining why he wanted to house AIDS patients in bungalows.
At the time, he says, he countered his opponents with love. "We continued to minister to these people, to love them." But he certainly retains a measure of starch, as he adds, "We made it clear their support was desired, not critical."
He'll have been with the church 20 years next February. When he arrived it had 400 members, with only 200 in regular attendance. It now numbers 10,000 and draws congregants from all over the area. Ratliff calls Brentwood a large middle-class church that he has tried to move along the lines of his reading of Scripture, which is that Christians are required by God "to help the disinherited, the disenfranchised."
"This was a church that was charging the Girl Scouts years ago to meet here," Ratliff says. No outsiders. There had been some significant changes. But when it got to the AIDS housing, Ratliff says, when it meant bringing outsiders in, fear and paranoia reigned.
Mary White is the project director of Brentwood's new program for young pregnant women. A high-risk obstetrical nurse with 20 years' experience, White, as a part-time worker at St. Luke's Hospital, began noticing the increase in the number of women giving birth who were HIV-positive.
"One day I walked in, and there was a 14year-old there, HIV-positive. This just upset me so much." As weeks went on, it became commonplace that from one to four obstetrical patients on the floor was HIV-positive, she says.
There was a woman in her late twenties, pregnant and HIV-positive, who allowed her HIV-positive cousin, who also had tuberculosis, and her cousin's two children to move in with her. White says the physician on the case was beside himself. With the depressed immune system of an HIV patient, the last thing this woman could tolerate was someone with TB around her. But, the patient said, her cousin had nowhere to live.
Then there was the patient from Corpus Christi, young and very ill. "We couldn't find a physician in Corpus who would treat her." She was taken into the hospital here in Houston and treated there till she was well enough to go home.
"What's needed?" White asked. "Housing," the doctor replied.
Another young woman arrived from the Beaumont area, where it is also impossible to find a doctor who'll treat HIV-positive pregnant women, according to White. She was nearing the final stage of pregnancy but wasn't in labor. She needed a place to stay, to wait. There wasn't one. So the doctor had no choice but to admit her to the hospital and deliver the baby early.
White resolved to find or build a place for these young women to stay in the hopes of delivering them to the labor room in better physical health, better educated about caring for themselves and their babies and with much improved chances for their infants.
She does this, she explains, "because I am concerned about my race." White says she learned at a recent medical conference that if the rate of black AIDS deaths continues, the African-American portion of the U.S. population, now 12.5 percent, will be reduced to 6.75 to 7 percent.
Caseworker Terri Jones has a cottage with five men in it. Two are on disability and do volunteer work with AIDS organizations in town. The others have jobs.
The men in the Brentwood program come from prison or off the street, Jones says. To get in, they have to be homeless and HIV-positive. The usual stay is six months to a year.
There are three units housing up to six residents each. Jones coordinates her efforts with caseworkers from other AIDS agencies to avoid duplicating services. Her job is to get the men settled, to get them thinking about long-term goals and to get them to take an active role in decisions about their lives.
She has had friends who were HIV-positive; she has had friends and clients die. Sometimes there's time to prepare for the death, sometimes not. She tries to help the families left behind.
She likes the group she has now and will be sorry to see them go, she says. One has been in the hospital since before Thanksgiving, and the others go visit him, take him gifts. The one who is having the hardest time is the man whose family is overseas. He has bad mood swings, Jones says, adding that it's always hardest for those who have no one else.
One thing Jones dislikes is that by the very nature of the disease, AIDS brings an end to privacy. There are the countless physical examinations, the random drug tests, the paperwork for an individual's funding to be filled out. "That's one of the problems of the HIV community now," Jones says. "We're in everybody's business."
In the years since the cottages opened, Ratliff says, there have been no crimes, no incidents other than internal ones. "Kids are still able to walk to Hobby School," a route that takes many of them right past the housing.
Willie Sylvester says things are calmer now because "the community has had a chance to see our work and know our mission." Funding has just been renewed again, and more volunteers are involved.
On March 25 Brentwood will be hosting its first major fund-raiser at the Wortham Theater with gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues singer Oleta Adams. They need more money to continue their work.
The protesters were a blip on Joe Ratliff's screen. He "stayed the course" and was rewarded with a program that he thinks does good and expands his church's ministry. Those parishioners who left were replaced long ago by new faces drawn to a socially active church that seems to attract upwardly mobile African-Americans with their own success stories to tell.
The world in this particular sector off Hiram Clarke did not come to an end because some people with AIDS moved into group housing. Some residents and churchgoers became better educated about the disease. Some took pride in African-Americans helping their own. Some AIDS patients went on to lives elsewhere. Others died, though at least not on the streets and at least not alone.
Globally, the fight against AIDS is being lost, Ratliff says. He knows he can't beat it in Africa, can't vanquish it on mission trips to third-world countries. Ratliff talks about trying to "brighten the corner where we are." Pragmatic compassion.
The Brentwood Baptist Church is notable for the big brown dome that adorns its top. There, a minister and some true believers set aside their own fears and prejudices about the gay lifestyle to try to help some lives. They reached into themselves and became the best they could be. And for all of that, they get to do more. Because there will be more. Let's just hope there won't always be more.
E-mail Margaret Downing at firstname.lastname@example.org.Conquering Fear