The phone rang in my second floor office. It was my secretary. “There is a man here who wants to see you,” she said.
“What does he want?” I asked.
“He will not tell me. He says he needs to talk to a pastor,” she replied.
Reluctantly, I told her to send him up. Why reluctantly? Because everyday people came to the church door, not really looking for the pastor, but looking for money. Most of the time, my secretary told them that we had no cash to dispense. Even if we did, we probably would not have given it to them. What would they spend it on? Drugs? Alcohol? Who knows?
As the man came up the stairs, I wondered what his story would be. I was busy. I hoped he would get to the point. He knocked on my door. I invited him in and he plopped down on the chair on the opposite side of my desk.
I asked rather impatiently, “What do you want?” Then, I sat back and waited for his pitch.
He sat very still for a long minute and then said, “My name is Fred. I am dying of AIDS. I guess I want to know if there is a God and I thought a Reverend might help me find out.”
Now it was my turn to be quiet for a “long minute” before saying, “I am sorry to have been so abrupt. Why don’t you start by telling me your story?”
Over the next several weeks, Fred would show up periodically. We had long conversations about life, God and death. Even with all our talks, I was still surprised to look out at the congregation one Sunday morning and find Fred seated in the front row. From that Sunday on, Fred never missed church.
Several more months passed and clearly Fred was beginning to fail. One morning when he stopped by the church, we prayed together. Fred’s prayer was honest. He wanted to know why he had to die and, if he did, would God accept him?”
Not long after that, Fred asked to be baptized and to join the church. He said that he now “believed in God enough that he wanted to make it official.” It was a moment that I will never forget. Before he left, however, he threw me a curve. “When you baptize me, shouldn’t you say that I am dying of AIDS?”
It was another “long minute” before I replied, “Yes, I will tell them.”
Two Sundays later, it was Fred’s big day. He came to church dressed in a new suit. I was a bit nervous. After all, it was 1989. In those days, people were freaked out about AIDS. The newspapers were publishing all kinds of wild stories about how the “innocent” could catch it. Some TV Evangelists even suggested that AIDS was equivalent to the “leprosy” prevalent in Jesus’ day. Nevertheless, after Fred came forward for baptism I said, “I know many of you have met Fred, but he wants me to tell you that he is dying of AIDS. He also wants you to know that he has found God at our church and wants to be baptized so he can make it ’official.’”
After Fred responded positively to the ancient baptismal questions, I baptized him and introduced him as a child of God. Instantly, the congregation rose to its feet and broke into applause. Tears poured down Fred’s face. He was “official,” accepted and a very happy man.
After the benediction, we left the chancel together and walked to the back of the church to greet folks. Most Sundays many people scooted out the side door in order to get home for Sunday dinner, but on Fred’s Sunday everybody stood patiently in line to wait their turn to hug Fred and welcome him into God’s family.
A few weeks later, Fred “officially” passed into the arms of his Creator.
Fred’s story is not unique. Despite what you read and hear, most faith communities are places of acceptance, not rejection, love not judgment. And…just to make it “official,” Fred’s story is one big reason that I “officially” love what I do.
John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts