Sunday's Mass at St. Augustine-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica began like many others, with the sound of bells and a pipe organ playing "Amazing Grace" before giving way to more somber and dissonant sounds.
The smell of incense filled the air as the procession began to move down the aisle.
Although the Mass began traditionally, this was no ordinary occasion. It was a Mass for people affected by AIDS, the second the church has held this year. The pews were filled predominantly with gay churchgoers who had come to express love and sorrow for friends they have lost to acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The suffering has mounted and so has the need for spiritual release, according to organizers of the Mass. In Los Angeles County, 1,129 cases of AIDS have been reported since 1981. Of those, 534 people have died.
The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, the gay writer-priest at St. Augustine's, and Hal Carter, a Saint John's Hospital clinical specialist in counseling psychology and member of the AIDS Project L.A. staff, said that they developed the Mass as
a way of embracing people who have been rejected by other religious institutions. They hope the Mass will serve as a model for other denominations.
"What we are trying to do here is say let's look at AIDS in a cool and objective way," Boyd said before the service. "Let's cut the emotion down a couple of decibels."
"It's not just a homosexual problem," said Dan Moore, who attended the service. "There are children dying. It's a human-killing disease and we all have to be concerned."
Church officials said worshipers included people suffering from AIDS. One man wore a surgical mask and had medical equipment on the seat next to him.
The Mass included solemn moments and moments of laughter. At one point, people were asked to say aloud the names of those who died. At other times, tears welled up in some listeners' eyes as a serene and occasionally smiling Boyd gazed toward the ceiling and delivered his sermon.
"It's time to talk to God," Boyd began. "I've talked to you since I was a little kid. . . . It's been a rocky relationship over the years. But God's always been there and so have I."
Boyd, who wrote the 1965 best seller "Are You Running With Me, Jesus?," used the sermon to speak of his own struggles within the church as a homosexual and priest. In 1976 he revealed publicly that he was a homosexual.
"Once I shouted at you in rage," he said in his sermon. "Why did you make me a homosexual. Why?. . . . You have no right to make me suffer. Because you made me gay, people hate me."
He described his search for love and work that had meaning, and his often lonely journey. "I realized what a beautiful gift it was that you made me gay," he said.
Gays or heterosexuals who have AIDS are not being condemned by God, he said, just as women were not being condemned at the Salem witch trials, nor Jews in the concentration camps, nor Jesus Christ on the cross.
Boyd encouraged members of the congregation to live for the moment. "We're all going to die, that's a given," Boyd said. " . . . What I realize is that what matters is how we live . . . in this moment we have."
Worshipers pinned rainbow ribbons to their lapels to demonstrate their compassion for those suffering from AIDS.
The church also presented awards to people who have helped fight the epidemic, including Mayor Tom Bradley and Supervisor Ed Edelman, who were not present. Applause filled the chapel.
But the most resounding applause was reserved for the people who have become involved personally in fighting AIDS--Marcia Behard, a registered nurse with County USC Hospital, and Andy Davi, a volunteer who has worked with AIDS patients. When about 30 other volunteers stood up, the applause was deafening.
After the Mass, Kathleen Christian, a nurse and "buddy," or volunteer, who cared for two people who died of AIDS, called the service one of hope and reflection.
"As a buddy, you are concerned with the (time) they have left," she said. "You are concerned with every moment. Toward the end, those moments become very difficult. You can only live today. . . . You take them shopping or to the movies. You watch TV or sit and cry together. Whatever it takes to be friends."
Mark Thompson, associate editor for the Advocate, a gay newspaper, said it is rare for an institution such as a church to rise to the challenge of AIDS. "It didn't make any difference what denomination you (belonged to). It was a very healing event."
The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, wearing white shirts and black pants and red bow ties and cummerbunds, sang during the Mass. Three of its members have died of AIDS, according to other members.
"It was not a (religious), but a very emotional, experience for me," said chorus member Robb Quint. "It was a remembrance of humans whom we have loved and miss."