Associated Press

August 28, 1997

Religion Today

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The denomination has not universally backed his mission, but he keeps the partnership alive with a cross-section of congregations.

If it wasn't for Southern Baptists like Raddatz, Diane Duncan of Wayne County would have left the church a long time ago.