Two weeks after the Rev. Steve Pieters learned he had AIDS, he was asked to preach the Easter sermon at North Hollywood's Metropolitan Community Church.
Still reeling from his diagnosis, Pieters was suddenly and intensely aware that whatever was going to happen to him, at the moment he was very much alive.
"You know what I've discovered?" the boyish, blue-eyed minister said from the pulpit, as the group celebrated Christ's Resurrection. "They've told me the worst thing they can tell me, and I can still dance. You want to see?" And Pieters, 33, a self-styled "fool for Christ," tap-danced for the congregation. The music in his head, in the best tradition of Christianity and Gene Kelly, was "Singin' in the Rain."
1,060 Cases in L.A.
Pieters is one of 1,060 Los Angeles residents with diagnosed cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, one of 12,736 known AIDS victims nationwide. Pieters is also a licensed minister of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly homosexual Christian sect of about 30,000 members founded in Los Angeles in 1968.
Formerly a pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford, Conn., he is now on the staff at the North Hollywood church.
As a gay activist minister with AIDS, Pieters may be uniquely qualified to talk about the spiritual implications of a disorder that would try the patience of Job. In his view, the gay church must be on the cutting edge of a tragic new ministry--providing the consolations of religion to those, mostly homosexual males, with AIDS. "None of the other churches is going to do it first," he tells his colleagues.
Pieters has made a videotape on spirituality and AIDS, produced by Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, and has preached to his denomination on its special obligation to "be present to" people with AIDS through such simple but godly acts as sharing meals and laughs with them.
He gives weekly pastoral care over the phone to 40 other men with AIDS and is visible in Los Angeles' well-organized AIDS prevention and support program.
Funeral Arrangements Made
But the year and a half since his diagnosis has not been all good works, tap-dancing and smiling through. Pieters has made funeral arrangements, which he described as "your basic pine box and cremation."
He and his lover separated two months ago, a separation he said was "probably more difficult than the diagnosis." And, although he now has few symptoms of AIDS, he still has days when he takes out his Shakespeare and howls at fate along with Lear.
"God is greater than AIDS," Pieters said, tired but otherwise fit-looking, as he sat recently in his Silver Lake apartment. As he stroked his cat, Grindle, he talked about his illness, his homosexuality and his faith. Theological texts sat on his crowded shelves next to books on the art of Walt Disney. A religious icon was displayed near a ceramic figure of Peter Pan.
"I have been greatly blessed," he said. "Life is exciting for me now. I've bounced back. I'm active. I'm happy. I'm excited about what I'm doing with my life."
That attitude has been hard-won, Pieters said. His initial response to finding out he had the life-threatening disease was to regret his homosexuality. In a journal, he wrote: "I found myself feeling that, if I had just stayed in the closet, if I had never come out, if I had never had sex, then I wouldn't have AIDS, and I wouldn't be facing my mortality quite so soon."
Largely because of his faith, however, he was able to decide that "I hate AIDS, but I love being gay," he said. If gay ghettoes in Los Angeles increased his chances of contracting the disease, they also have allowed him to live a life he loves and are providing him with the support community he needs, said Pieters, who grew up in Andover, Mass.
A Gift of God
"I may never have contracted AIDS if I had never come out of the closet, but the closet would have suffocated me," he wrote. "My spirit would have died."
Like other members of his church, he believes that his sexuality is a gift of God. That theological position has helped him dismiss in his own mind the argument of some fundamentalist Christians that AIDS is God's curse on homosexuals. "I don't believe God is punishing me," he said. "I believe God is with me, struggling against this disease."
Pieters had night sweats and other classic symptoms of the disorder throughout 1983. Desperately ill, he went to a doctor who assured him that he did not have AIDS. Nonetheless, he was sometimes so terrified of discovering lesions that he wouldn't take off his clothes for three days in a row. Then in April, 1984, he was told that the sores on his feet were signs of Kaposi's sarcoma, a skin cancer associated with AIDS.
In tears, he began calling his friends, only to get their answering machines. "By the second or third answering machine, I was leaving the message, 'I've just been diagnosed as having terminal cancer, and I'd really appreciate a call back.' "