For Clergy Who Ministered Through the AIDS Crisis Covid is Both Eerily Familiar and Puzzlingly Different

In an eerie foreshadowing of Zoom calls, Tammy Faye Bakker Interviews Rev. Steve Pieters on PTL

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“This is not my first plague.” In 1982, Rev. Steve Pieters was the first minister diagnosed with AIDS in the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a denomination that lost a third of its clergy to the disease. In 1985, he was the first openly gay man and person with AIDS interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker on The PTL Club, a Christian TV show and cultural staple of the early Christian Right. Today he’s retired from ministry, locked down at home, and “trying to be of service over the phone and zoom” to people in his church facing another pandemic.

Pieters is part of a unique cohort for whom the current pandemic is both eerily familiar and puzzlingly different. LGBT Christian clergy who ministered in queer communities in the 1980s and 90s are engaging Covid-19 using some lessons learned from AIDS ministry in the years before treatment. They’re also grappling with the spiritual, political, and social lessons we failed to learn in that epidemic; lessons that are re-emerging in this one.

Bishop Zachary Jones re-experienced the feeling of being utterly absorbed in the immediacy of a medical crisis when taking part in the daily ritual of thanking New York health care workers. “While I was banging this tambourine I was like oh my God, I remember what it meant to deal with case after case after case.” Jones, a bishop in the Unity Fellowship, started his work in AIDS and LGBTQ ministry driving Unity founder Rev. Carl Beans to his seemingly endless hospital visits in the AIDS units of 1980s Los Angeles.

Rev. Penny Nixon, who ministered in MCC’s San Francisco congregation in the 1990s, felt bodily memories of AIDS ministry rise in the first few weeks of Covid and then recede in the face of the also-familiar need to put feelings away and get to work. “How we got through the last pandemic,” she said, “it became the reality. You put your head down and you do it.”

For Karen Ziegler, the political parallels have been almost uncanny. She was the pastor of the MCC congregation in Greenwich Village for a decade that spanned the emergence of AIDS. “I realized early on in the Trump administration that it felt like the 80s when Ronald Reagan was elected and then there was this sharp, visible turn to the right,” she said. Part of that rightward turn is the way that AIDS and Covid revealed the often implicit American political calculation of whose lives are valued. The contrast between the anti-gay backlash in the first years of AIDS and the backlash against people of color evident in both epidemics is “helping me to understand that the original lie of America is this white superiority and all the kinds of supremacy that allows some people to think that other people don’t matter. All of that has become so visible.”

There are big differences in the physical and social trajectories of the respective diseases. In its early years AIDS was a very visible disease and, as Rev. Jim Mitulski recalled, an ugly one. Mitulski ministered with Nixon at the MCC congregation in San Francisco. Jones remembered seeing people getting sicker and sicker, week after week. “Death was much slower,” he said. And for all of the losses of Covid, the length of illness, for most, is much shorter and the possibility of survival much greater.

When Pieters was first diagnosed there was no treatment for AIDS. He considered himself lucky to have a doctor who advised “if there’s a one in a million chance that you can survive this, why not believe that you are that one in a million? Just believe that. And act like it.” People with Covid have a much higher rate of survival. “Eighty percent, eighty-five percent will survive this. And that’s a lot easier to believe than one in a million,” he said.

“It’s baffling,” Jones said, “the difference stigma brings to a pandemic.” It’s the most striking difference between the diseases these clergy have noticed. An early AIDS diagnosis was often intertwined with sexuality, sometimes with substance abuse, and always with social shame. Clergy had to minister to all three in addition to the disease. Jones remembers it as a kind of spiritual triage where he was always trying to figure out the most pressing need to respond to in any given case. “There were times that we just didn’t know what we were dealing with until hindsight,” he said. AIDS, recalled Nixon, was “religiously stigmatized in a way this pandemic is not.”

Isolation and aloneness have been challenges of pastoral care and spiritual leadership in both epidemics, albeit in very different forms. In the early years, the isolation of people with AIDS was visceral. Many were socially—and sometimes medically—shunned. The pastoral challenge was to make congregations spaces where people with AIDS were seen, welcomed, touched, and included. Nixon remembered how MCC San Francisco shaped ritual around the experience of AIDS. “[W]hether it’s the men coming with their IV poles coming to church [or] laying on the pews, their bodies were recognized as sacred and holy in that moment. That was a powerful corrective to society. And to religion. And to church.” All the clergy I talked to made church environments that countered the fear of disease by bringing people physically close.

With Covid, Bishop Yvette Flunder notes, the challenge is to keep people connected when the virus keeps them physically apart. Flunder started Ark of Refuge, one of the first AIDS ministries in a black church, in the mid-80s. Today she’s the pastor at City of Refuge, a UCC/Metho-Bapti-Costal church, and leads The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a global community of churches committed to radical inclusivity. With AIDS, she recalled, people who looked sick were marginalized “because of the position that the church took that if you have this dirty disease you’re a dirty person. But in this particular environment it’s the church that’s the dirty person. It’s [coming to] church that can make church people sick. Which flips the script.” And flips the pastoral task.

Ministry in LGBTQ communities provided at least two tools that have been useful in that new task. One is spiritual grounding in what Flunder calls a “consistent ethics of self care.” “[W]e talked about barriers and condoms back in the day, and safe sex practices. I now talk about social distancing and masks. And for me it’s six in one hand, half a dozen in another. Protect yourself. Be responsible not just for yourself but for your partner. . . .  It’s really not different.”

Another is the skill of ritual innovation, honed in ministry to people whose life passages were not ritually marked in the eyes of the dominant culture. “God didn’t go away” in either epidemic, said Mitulski. “Our ability to craft ritual, our imagination has not dissipated or dried up.” Queer churches have long had to create rituals to counter that exclusion and make the sanctification of queer life feel real.

This has translated into creative experimentation with making virtual church feel real. Flunder’s church has grown since the epidemic. “We’ve had all kinds of ritual online,” she said, including different sacraments from the African-American Christian church and the indigenous spiritual communities that make up her congregation. They’ve also experimented with outdoor rituals. “[We] broadcast through our radios and through cell phones so that we could see each other. . . . We gave people little disposable communion kits and we had communion on the parking lot and blew our horns something fierce… you know, made a lot of noise.”

Like all of us, these ministers are looking toward the time when science and medicine change the trajectory of the Covid epidemic. But they also remember the challenges that change can bring. One is the need to address the compounded grief and loss that can so easily be skipped over in the midst of crisis. Pieters remembers that “when the drumbeat of death slowed down in ‘96, ‘97, there was a palpable feeling of deep depression among a lot of people who worked in AIDS. A deep grief,” which he attributed to losses unattended to.

“Think about all the un-mourned people who’ve died.” Mitulski said. “And the fact that they died in solitude. We’ve got to deal with it or it’s going to fuck people up for a long time.” In a 1999 sermon, given three years after protease inhibitors changed the course of AIDS in his congregation, Mitulski reminded them that AIDS wasn’t over. AIDS still isn’t over. And it fuels his admonition that, if and when the course of Covid changes, we attend to its afterlives. And especially to the enduring inequalities that both epidemics make inescapably clear.

Complete Article HERE!

Holy Water, Film on HIV-Positive Gay Priest, Launches Kickstarter

How gay rights went mainstream — and what it cost

Activists wanted revolution. They got rainbow Nikes.

By Diane Winston

Pride Month has gone mainstream. Taylor Swift released a new LGBTQ anthem, and companies from Macy’s to Doc Martens have turned pride into a marketing tool.

This widespread acceptance is a far cry from the gay liberation movement that once championed an alternative lifestyle and a culture all its own. Merging into the mainstream wasn’t always a central goal for the movement, particularly after the Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in gay history that took place 50 years ago this month.

How did a culture and identity once defined by its marginalization — the criminalization of same-sex relationships, the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness — turn into a fashion statement?

Ironically, the religious right, the news media and the AIDS crisis helped this happen. As journalists spotlighted the movement and its victories throughout the 1970s, conservative Christians feared the “homosexual agenda” was gaining traction. But when HIV/AIDS, an illness that initially appeared to strike only gay men, became a news story, evangelical leaders claimed it was God’s punishment for immorality. Reporters repeated this frame, and subsequent stories explored whether bathhouses and non-monogamous relationships had fueled the epidemic.

By the mid-1980s, the gay liberation movement had pivoted, embracing mainstream institutions and fighting for the same rights as heterosexuals. Their victories spurred many Americans to reevaluate their ideas about gender roles and same-sex relationships. But greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community came at the expense of Stonewall’s animating vision: the freedom to be and to live how one wanted.

That freedom made headlines in the decade after Stonewall. Journalists profiled a community with its own music, mores and fashion, as well as an uninhibited sex scene. They depicted a burgeoning culture, one that called into question conventional norms such as monogamy and marriage. Reporters also covered the victories of gay rights activists, who persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its diagnostic manual and voters to support local anti-discrimination ordinances.

But even as mainstream acceptance grew, a backlash was brewing. In 1977, entertainer Anita Bryant mobilized the Save Our Children Campaign, encouraging church folks in Dade County, Fla., to support the repeal of a Miami ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. To the surprise of many, Bryant succeeded.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a popular television and radio preacher, was among her backers. In 1979, encouraged by Beltway Republicans, Falwell launched Moral Majority, a grass-roots political organization for religious conservatives. This new voting bloc supported traditional family structures — nuclear families with a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother — and denounced feminists, abortion rights supporters and people in the LGBTQ community.

Their first goal was to elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and after he won, Falwell attributed Reagan’s 1980 victory to Moral Majority support.

Falwell’s rise would be pivotal for the LGBTQ community because of another story in the news: Physicians had identified a mysterious virus that seemed to target gay men. Initially, news outlets reported sporadically on the virus, assuming most readers weren’t interested. But by early 1983, AIDS coverage exploded.

Physicians still did not know how it spread, but there was growing agreement that blood was a carrier and speculation that casual contact could cause infection. AIDS was no longer a “gay plague,” as the media initially called it. Using words that stoked alarm among the “general population” — the catchall term news outlets used for heterosexual Americans — journalists reported that AIDS was incurable and often fatal.

The medical news moved the subject onto the front pages, as journalists began reporting on the disease’s human toll. One New York Times article described the disease’s “emotional anguish.” The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a well-known liberal minister, said he counseled “AIDS victims” who “felt that this was in some way God’s punishment.” He assured them that “being gay was not a sin.”

Coverage such as this highlighted the moral dimension of the epidemic, and religious conservatives saw an opportunity.

During a Fourth of July “I Love America” rally, Falwell declared that AIDS was “God’s way of ‘spanking’ us,” adding that even if most Americans were “innocent” of sodomy, heterosexuals who countenanced homosexuality were rebelling against God.

Falwell quickly became a go-to guy for HIV/AIDS stories. For reporters looking to balance stories about the moral dimension of AIDS, Falwell offered everything they could want. Waving a Bible and citing scripture, he seemed the embodiment of religious orthodoxy to secular journalists who knew little about Christianity. He also had colorful quotes, an army of Christian soldiers and the ear of the president. Best of all, he was always ready to talk.

Before long, the televangelist’s message influenced how reporters framed HIV/AIDS. One Newsweek story around that time explored how the virus ended “a decade of carefree sexual adventure.” The article’s subheads included “Punishment,” “Hostility” and “Backlash” — all Falwellian themes — and the text repeatedly quoted the minister. The piece also noted that after 743 deaths and 1,922 “victims,” some gay rights activists were questioning the movement’s valorization of sexual freedom.

Most gay leaders quoted in the article mentioned a “new sobriety.” The language of the piece and its sources presumed that monogamy was preferable to “excess,” “sobriety” and “flamboyance,” and middle-class values to “hedonism.” The story also suggested that commitments to work and family could bridge the differences between “us” and “them.” Good gay people, like straight people, accepted monogamy and capitalism, it said, while bad gay people lived bohemian lifestyles, indulged in casual sex and died. AIDS coverage policed the possible: a win for conservatives, because it shifted the midpoint of American political life rightward.

By stigmatizing the alternative gay culture and promoting normative institutions and practices, this coverage unwittingly helped shift the focus of the gay liberation movement to civil rights — an area in which they had more hope for success. Many stopped challenging mainstream ideas and institutions — from marriage and religion to gender and bodily autonomy — and started fighting for the same privileges as heterosexuals, including the right to marry, serve in the military, adopt children and be free from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation. Their successes have frustrated religious conservatives who are still contesting the “homosexual agendaTarget. But it came at a cost. Protesters at Stonewall fought for the freedom to be who they were and to live how they wanted. They wanted a revolution; they got rainbow Nikes.

Complete Article HERE!

Why I Can’t Judge Gay Clergy

The story of one man I knew, and the uneasy secret he hid from the church he served.

By Kevin Moroso

Police Broke Up a Drug-Fueled Vatican Priest Orgy.” You can’t make up a more sensational headline than that.

The story was originally reported on June 28 by the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. According to their anonymously-sourced report, when Vatican police were called to the apartment of Monsignor Luigi Capozzi, a secretary to an adviser to Pope Francis, they allegedly discovered hard drugs and a gay orgy in progress; Capozzi was said to have been swept off to a detox center outside Rome and faces misdemeanor drug charges.

The report is thinly-sourced, and thus far, Vatican officials have refused to confirm its validity. The Daily Beast was able to confirm that Capozzi no longer works at his old position, and an anonymous senior Vatican official confirmed to The Catholic Register that “multiple sources” have told them the story is true.

Less-than-stellar sourcing aside, the story spread like wildfire across social media, and many in the gay community were quick to shame and jeer Capozzi for his hypocrisy. My own Facebook feed was filled with friends ruthlessly mocking him, saying he deserved what he had coming. These are my same gay friends who are unabashedly proud and open about their wild sex lives, friends who have been to plenty of drug-fueled orgies themselves. But I didn’t have the same reaction, because the news reminded me of a lovely man I knew. He was nowhere near the corridors of the Church’s senior officials, and his case was markedly different from that of this secretary, but his story constantly reminds me that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the sex lives of others—provided it involves consenting adults—no matter the person’s profession.

I went to a Catholic school, even though my family wasn’t Catholic or even Christian. It was run by a very conservative order, one that was incredibly strict and would later become notorious for child sex abuse. There was a parish nearby, unconnected to the school, and that lovely man was the priest there. I didn’t know him at all at the time; he would only occasionally come to school to lead mass, and my Catholic classmates would be sent to his parish periodically for confession.

It was only later in life that I would meet him and hear his story. He had blunt words to say about the men who ran my school: they were assholes and they were creepy. But it was how he came to lead that parish, and what happened next, that captivated me.

Father John* had joined a seminary when he was a teenager. He knew he was different from the other boys because he wasn’t interested in girls. But he had a sheltered upbringing, and given the era he grew up in, he interpreted his disinterest as a calling to join the priesthood, like many young men who felt similarly. Once he had completed his studies, he eventually traveled to Rome, became a full-fledged priest, and returned to Canada to lead a parish.

By that point he was an adult, no longer confined to a seminary, living in a society in the midst of a sexual revolution. He began to realize what made him different: he was gay. But he was too scared to leave the Church.

Pay within the priesthood can vary dramatically—the head of a gigantic American megachurch, for example, can make hundreds of thousands of dollars—but salaries, on average, tend to be small, just enough to cover expenses. Father John had no money of his own. He had no pension, because the Church would house and feed him when he got old. His only education was in theology. He told me he felt stuck. Plus, he enjoyed what he did. Pastoral care is quite like being a social worker, listening to people’s struggles and helping them find a way out. Ironically, he spent his life helping others with their problems without anyone to help him through his own. He never cast criticism on gays from the pulpit and preached only love. He wasn’t a hypocrite.

Secretly, he had sex with men. He’d meet them in the usual spots—parks, peepshows, and the like. He thought he could maintain these two lives separately, as many of us do, balancing a professional career with a sometimes debaucherous private side.

Then, one day, those two lives collided. He became very ill and went to the hospital. He was told he had AIDS. He knew this was a secret he couldn’t keep; the Church paid for his medical insurance, and it would be impossible to work while managing his illness. So he went to his bishop and told him his diagnosis. He wasn’t alone. Many priests acquired HIV and AIDS throughout the 80s and 90s.

The main job of a bishop is to provide pastoral care to his priests, but Father John’s sexuality precluded him from such goodwill. The bishop, John said, was going to do to him what he did to the others—he and his dirty little secret would be sent to a monastery to die alone, hidden from public view. For too long, the Church could simply shuffle pedophiles around and nobody would ever know (or at least they thought). But a priest who handed out communion with Karposi Sarcoma lesions? You can’t hide that from a parish.

Well, Father John was having none of it—he wasn’t going to disappear like the others. He had built up a network of other gay priests over time, and he contacted one, an Anglican who arranged a meeting with his bishop. The bishop told him not to worry. The Anglican Church recognizes Catholic priests, and he would gladly allow him to become a priest in an Anglican parish, doing what he did before as long as he was well, and whenever he got too sick, he’d be looked after.

I only got to know Father John after he’d made that switch. I met him through various religious activities of my own; at first, he was just another Anglican priest to me. It wasn’t until I randomly mentioned where I went to school one day that he revealed the parish where he once worked and we made the connection. He was always a bit sick—he had managed to survive AIDS, but his HIV treatment was never quite enough to make him well again. But, more importantly, his life was secure. He got the chance to continue to say mass, to visit the sick in their homes, to help people find their way, only now, he was able to do so as an openly gay man. He was in my life for a number of years until I moved away and lost touch. The last time I saw him, he was walking down the street, wearing his collar, on his way to give communion to an elderly lady who couldn’t leave her bed. He looked frail and struggled to remember things, but he still had a smile on his face.

Father John was luckier than most other gay Catholic priests. He was fortunate enough to have another denomination in his area that accepted gays, and accepted him. He had the courage to refuse the disgraceful end his first Bishop had in mind for him. He had an easy out.

Others aren’t so lucky, trapped by a choice made in their youth, as scared of the secular world as they are of the institution to which they’re beholden. One only imagines the cycle of despair that could arise. Instead of mocking gays in the Church, whether they’re having sex with other gay men or not, think of this guy instead. Struggling through life, as best he knew how.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic priest: I have a family member who is gay

By Niraj Warikoo

At a national conference in Plymouth, Catholic leaders spoke out Wednesday against same-gender sexual relations, claiming it’s harmful and unnatural, but added that the Catholic Church must reach out to those with same-sex attractions.

Allen-Vigneron
Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron waves after leading Mass in Plymouth on Wed., August 12, 2015 at the Inn at St. John’s at conclusion of conference on Catholics with same-sex attraction.

At the conference, a popular Catholic priest in metro Detroit, the Rev. John Riccardo of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, told about how a family member of his wrestles with how to deal with a gay child.

The three-day conference, titled “Welcoming and Accompanying Our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction,” concluded with a mass led by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, the religious leader of 1.3 million Catholics in metro Detroit. In his homily to about 400 participants at the conference, Vigneron strongly defended the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality.

Other speakers gave explicit talks about sexuality, saying that gay sex is destructive. The conference was criticized by liberal Catholics, including several protesters who gathered Tuesday outside the conference to criticize its message.

“It’s not being a bigot” to say that people should not have sexual relations with people of the same gender, Vigneron told people inside the chapel during mass Wednesday at the Inn at St. John’s, a former seminary, in Plymouth.

He praised the Catholic clergy and lay people who attended the conference, saying they are helping people with same-sex attraction learn “how to grow in chaste continence … share in the chastity of Jesus Christ. That’s the goal.”

“Some people think we’re a bunch of Queen Victorians … prissy,” Vigneron said. “A bunch of blue-stockings. No.”

Rather, Catholics are bringing the “good news” of the gospel and Jesus Christ, he said. He compared leading gays out of same-sex relations to Moses leading people out of slavery in Egypt.