AIDS Care Team with Cheryl (front center in stripes)

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” The words of Mother Teresa describe the state of many people with AIDS, particularly in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the virus carried a death sentence and many people with the illness were stigmatized.

Twenty years ago, a group of St. Francis parishioners responded to the call to be companions to people in the Triangle area who were dying of AIDS. Many of these care partners had been abandoned by their families or shunned by their church communities. The work was difficult, but it transformed lives. After the death of Cheryl, a care partner, her daughter wrote to the Care Team: “I didn’t think people as pure and kind as you really existed.”

Carol Zimmerman recalls a time when Cheryl requested an all-day outing, wanting to experience as much enjoyment as she could in her remaining time. They went to Shelley Lake, and when the woman leaned over a railing to snap photos of turtles, Carol held onto her belt to keep her from falling. At day’s end, exhausted, Cheryl said, “That was the best day ever.”

The inevitability of death was the hardest  part. “The tough part was we knew how that relationship would end, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen in between,” said Bob Phares, one of the long-time members of the AIDS Care Team.  Care Team members offered friendship and a listening ear, ran errands, took care partners on outings, shared meals and sat with them in the hospital. They did not preach – their goal was to offer non-judgmental acceptance and love.

Parishioners who served on the team say it transformed them. Zimmerman said that at the times she was present as someone neared death, “it made me aware that death is just another step we’re passing into. It gave me a closer sense of God.”

Fr. David McBriar, who encouraged the work of the AIDS Care Team from the beginning, said it was a ministry of love and understanding. “The team certainly was spiritually transformed.”  The more than 15 people who served on the team developed a strong bond, accompanying 35 care partners over the years.

Phares recalled Joey, a young gay man who died of AIDS in 1995.Team members took turns sitting with him round the clock during his last weeks helping him to administer morphine. One night Joey said to hold the narcotics. He wanted to talk. “He shared all the difficulties he went though being gay. He opened up like you will open up when you have no time left and nothing left to hide,” Phares said.

“He opened me up to people outside the Catholic faith, people who were not heterosexual,” Phares said. “He will stay with me as long as I live.”

Change in AIDS Care Team’s Mission

Over time, the work of the AIDS Care Team has changed, mainly as a result of the medical progress in treating AIDS. The stigma has lessened as AIDS has become a treatable chronic illness, and the needs of people with AIDS have changed. Most now require more typical social services, rather than hospital visits and companionship.

As a result, the care team has made the difficult decision to refocus their efforts, moving away from its main focus being the individual support of people with AIDS. Zimmerman said the team has greatly appreciated the generous support of parishioners over the years and want to keep the ministry active.

Events in 2012 will include:

  • Participation and fundraising for the May 5 AIDS Walk in downtown Raleigh.
  • Participation in the Advent Giving Tree. Last Advent, parishioners contributed $2,700 for people with AIDS. The money went to a local AIDS food pantry.