People who care service gives new hope

By Sharon Gittleman

ROYAL OAK - At one time, people with AIDS had to battle more than their illness. Men, women and even children with HIV were treated like lepers - people whose condition placed them outside of society's compassionate embrace. A handful of people in the clergy stepped in to heal this breach, including the Rev. Rod Reinhart, an organizer of the annual People who Care About People with AIDS prayer and healing service.

"We started them a long time ago because we wanted to make sure people with AIDS have the chance to be in a loving, caring and accepting atmosphere at Christmas time, where they could discover the joy and peace God gives all of us," said Reinhart. "We also wanted to bring together major religious leaders to speak out against the homophobia and hysteria associated with AIDS. We wanted to say that God loves everyone equally and that God is especially concerned about people who are ill and in need and suffering. That definitely includes our people with AIDS."

The 19th annual People Who Care service held last Sunday, drew celebrants from across metro Detroit and beyond. Rev. DaVita McCallister came from Georgia to preach to the gathering at St. John's Episcopal Church in Royal Oak.

"She was very uplifting and gave a down-to-earth message about bearing the cross," said Gregory Porter. "She said it was too much for Jesus to carry alone, Simon helped him. If Christ needed help, so do we."

Brad Schenck described McCallister's sermon as "motivating," with a touch of humor.

"When she stood up, the floor moved and squeaked a bit. She said she'd gotten our movement going," he said.

This was the second year McCallister, formerly assistant pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, helped lead the People Who Care service.

"This is the advent season, a season in the church for hope and inspiration and a time for expectation," said McCallister, now serving with the First Congregationalist Church of Christ. "I think the church has to be hopeful that the world will be transformed into a place where we can receive and affirm LGBT persons."

McCallister said the church has a duty to lead this change.

"We've allowed the bible to be co-opted by people who hate, so we have to be the agent for transformation," she said.

While McCallister preached to the congregation, pastors from Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and other faiths also participated in the service.

"I liked the fact it was all different denominations," said Dennis German. "It gave you insight into how different denominations worked."

Attendees enjoyed pre-service concerts from the Full Truth Church of Christ and St. John's Episcopal Church choirs.

Art was another medium of comfort and love used during the event. Each year, a special work of art is used for the program cover, expressing the spirit of the gathering. Artist John Benson has been creating these covers since 1989. This year, Benson's drawing included calls for worshipers to "rejoice in your hope" and "be patient in tribulation."

Benson also helped collect 150 gifts that were left at the church for people with AIDS. "There was clothing, scarves, gloves and some toys," said Benson.

The presents will be delivered to Simon House, Wellness House, Children's Immune Disorder, Friends Alliance and the Detroit Medical Center.

"A lot of people appreciate that someone has thought about them," said Benson. "It's easy to get lost, especially in a hospital."

While a number of social factors changed the way people with AIDS are viewed in our society, Reinhart believes gatherings like the People who Care event still have a big role to play.

"This year, with the election coming up, we have to go back to where we started in the beginning, to reemphasize that God wants the church and the whole society to care for people with AIDS and to make sure there is room at the inn for everyone, and not for just a select group of straight conservative Christians," he said. "We want to make sure the church reemphasizes the love of God, and God's demand that all people be accepted for who and what they are."

Reinhart said the gathering, a traditional Eucharistic celebration with scriptures, preaching and prayers, also served as a healing service, with an emphasis on spiritual and physical restoration.

"When we come to this service, we show we are truly people who care," he said.

It's a message that resonated with Shirley Allen.

"I come every year for this," she said. "It's a service of hope for a lot of people."

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