August 28, 1997
ASHEBORO, N.C. (AP) -- Brenda Jones never thought she would be alive this day to talk about her battle with AIDS -- let alone share her tears and laughter at a conference center run by Southern Baptists.
But she and other HIV patients are finding comfort -- and spiritual renewal -- at a retreat in North Carolina.
Dozens diagnosed with the virus have discovered faith through HIV/AIDS retreats sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
``I thought I'd drop off the face of the earth and die. I thought it was a death sentence,'' Jones, diagnosed eight years ago with HIV, told fellow patients during a small-group meeting at rustic Caraway Conference Center recently. ``But you're not going anywhere until (God) calls you home.''
The AIDS retreat, unique in the Southern Baptist denomination, gives patients and their caregivers a chance to talk about their sickness and find some sympathy with fellow patients. The convention held a similar camp for children with AIDS.
``It's a place to get away and meet other people,'' said James Atkins, diagnosed with HIV 11 years ago. The 45-year-old ex-soldier attended each of the four retreats the state convention has sponsored going back to August 1995. ``There's a lot of churches out there that really aren't open to this type of health work.''
The retreat in part tries to dispel the stereotype that Southern Baptists are unconcerned with the AIDS crisis. The denomination's boycott of the Walt Disney Co. this summer for its ``gay-friendly'' policies didn't help to change that image.
``This is a place where they can be open about their disease,'' said Eric Raddatz, executive director of the Baptist AIDS Partnership of North Carolina. ``A lot of people have bad feelings about the church. But when we bring them together, we say `this, this is the church.'''
The dozen AIDS patients at the five-day retreat come from different backgrounds and different parts of the state. Some are gay, others straight, but they share so much.
They feel lonely fighting their illness, some likening it to the way people in biblical times viewed leprosy. They feel abandoned by friends and the church.
Others like Sandy are still trying to come to terms with her illness. The young woman from Goldsboro, who didn't want to give her last name, just learned seven months ago she had HIV.
``I never had to go through anything like this,'' Sandy said. ``I was popular in school. I got along with everybody ... Even though my family loves me, I feel I'm still alone. I just don't want to be alone. I'm not ready to die.''
Jones, who was attending her second retreat, says the drugs she is taking are helping her live longer than she ever thought she would. AIDS death rates are dropping and drug combinations including protease inhibitors are increasing the hope of the ill.
But many are poor, unable to work anymore and depend on Social Security payments for food and shelter, and Medicaid to pay for the pills that keep them alive.
``It's hard to feel normal when you take your medicine in the morning and you take your medicine again at night,'' Donald Bloodworth of Lumberton told other camp participants.
Raddatz says the retreat's goal is to make the patients feel normal. Bible studies focus on community, forgiveness and mercy.
The Rev. George Fuller taught a Bible study from the New Testament book of Ephesians. The Bible's message, said Fuller: All are sinful and unworthy of God's love, but Jesus' death on the cross makes everyone complete.
``Has anybody here been misunderstood?'' Fuller asked the group. Everyone nodded. ``I think that's why so many people don't know God because they misunderstand him. ... His grace and mercy and great love are big enough for everything we've done wrong.''
The camp also includes nightly worship, singing, free time and a memorial service for patients and caregivers who want to remember those who have died to AIDS.
Raddatz, a California native, started the Baptist AIDS Partnership after attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. His father, who got the virus from a blood transfusion, died of AIDS in 1993.
``There was a real need for some work in this area ...,'' said Raddatz, 54. ``We wanted to do something positive.''
The denomination has not universally backed his mission, but he keeps the partnership alive with a cross-section of congregations.
``People say I shouldn't be working with homosexuals,'' he said. ``But I tell them all I'm trying to do is follow what Jesus said to do. To love your neighbor as yourself.''
``We're being non-judgmental and loving and not condemning ... my job is not to judge. I don't condone the behavior, but my job here is not to do that. What would Jesus do? He would be here.''
If it wasn't for Southern Baptists like Raddatz, Diane Duncan of Wayne County would have left the church a long time ago.
``I've experienced more spiritual growth and felt more close to God,'' said Duncan, who contracted the virus through her husband. ``It's a shame that it took something like this to bring me closer to God.''