A church is supposed to comfort the spiritually needy, but a Columbia man who has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, says he and others with the virus often are shunned or ignored by religious congregations.
"It's been horrible," said the 37-year-old man who was diagnosed as carrying the human immunodeficiency virus six years ago and who asked that he and the church he attends from time to time remain anonymous.
Unlike other diseases, AIDS is often the subject of moral judgments, he said, seen by some as God's punishment for immoral behavior.
"It makes it very difficult for someone feeling sick and terrible to go some place where they may be treated unfairly," the man said. "The relationship with the church and people with HIV and AIDS needs to be strengthened."
Today, three county clergymen will try to bridge that gap with the county's first ecumenical healing service for people living with AIDS and HIV, their families, friends and care-givers.
Howard County General Hospital's Pastoral Care Department is sponsoring the service, which will begin at 5 p.m. in the chapel at St. Paul's Lutheran Church on Route 216 in Fulton.
It will be repeated the third Sunday of each month.
People with cancer and other illnesses may attend, but news media are barred to protect the confidentiality of participants.
The service is expected to draw participants from throughout the county, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
"All I need is two," said the Rev. Arthur R. Lillicropp III, director of the county hospital's pastoral care department, who created the service. "I don't care about numbers. What I care about is love."
The service, which will feature prayers, music, laying on of hands and anointing, is a way Christians can reach out to those with AIDS and HIV, said the Rev. Rod Ronneberg, senior pastor at St. Paul's.
"There are times when they are treated like the lepers were treated in Jesus' time," he said.
Said the Rev. John F. Kinsella, a priest at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Mission in Kings Contrivance, the third clergyman participating: "When there's power nowhere else, there's power in prayer."
As of September 30, 95 people have been diagnosed with AIDS in the county, and 56 people have died, said Ann Wicke, chair of the AIDS Alliance of Howard County, which coordinates services for residents with AIDS.
The actual numbers are probably higher. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimate that, nationally, the true number of HIV cases may be six to nine times the number of confirmed cases.
Because of society's fear and attitudes toward the disease, people with AIDS sometimes lose their jobs and homes and are afraid to attend church, said Father Lillicropp, an Episcopal priest.
He created the ecumenical healing service because he promised a woman who died of AIDS this year that he would start a service for those afraid to attend church.
"It's important that we have an atmosphere of hope and comfort for people who are very often walking an isolated journey," he said.
AIDS is ubiquitous, said Father Lillicropp, who frequently counsels AIDS patients at the hospital.
Since 1983, he has known 28 people who have died from the disease, including a close friend and an Episcopal priest.
"I don't know anyone who doesn't know somebody who has died from AIDS," he said. "It makes me very sad. I've seen some of the most talented human beings wasted from this disease."
To prevent the spread of AIDS, Father Lillicropp said, people need to educated, especially young adults between 18 and 26 "who think they are invincible or immortal."
The religious community must also get involved, he said, working with people while they are alive, instead of just holding funerals when they die.
The healing services, he said, bear an important message: "There's hope in the midst of uncertainty . . . and God is always on your side."