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The Papal Visit : Game of Life : Church's Weekly Bingo Keeps AIDS Hospice Operating

September 18, 1987|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The Pope was only blocks away, concluding a poignant encounter at Mission Dolores with 62 people diagnosed with AIDS, and in the basement social hall of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, about 150 of the faithful were convened.

They had come not in conjunction with the papal visit but to partake in a weekly ritual. It is an activity that in many parishes across America seems to carry almost liturgical weight. They bowed their heads as one and contemplated white sheets of paper spread out before them on folding tables. An amplified voice filled the hall.

"I-19," the voice called out. "I-one-nine." The Thursday night bingo game was on.

Enthusiasm Not Dented

But this was no ordinary parish, and no ordinary bingo game. Both are extraordinary in ways that cut to the heart of the message that the Pope brought--more with his gentle hands than with words--to Mission Dolores. And they explain why this pontiff, who causes freeways to be shut down, holds television stations captive and generally disrupts daily life everywhere he goes, could not on this night dent enthusiasm for bingo.

Holy Redeemer serves the Castro District, province of the city's substantial gay population, and as the AIDS epidemic has left its mark on the entire neighborhood, it also has left a mark on the Catholic parish. No one knows how many parishioners have been claimed, but it is in the hundreds and climbing.

"It gets heavy," said Father Tony McGuire, the 47-year-old pastor of the parish. "It is frustrating. You bury one and then the next one is diagnosed. It's a never-ending cycle."

A little more than a year ago, the archdiocese agreed to lease a convent across the street from Holy Redeemer to a group that wanted to convert it to a 15-bed hospice, primarily for people dying of AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The clients, as they are called, check in for the last few days of their lives. They are made comfortable, and then they die--at a pace of about three a week now.

Contributions for the hospice came from all over the city, but the parish itself pledged $45,000. To raise its portion, Holy Redeemer fell back on a staple of church fund-raising across America--bingo.

For the last year, every Thursday at 6 p.m., a crowd of anywhere from 150 to 250 players has filled the basement hall and for three hours played serious bingo. The big winners walk away with several hundred dollars, and after the game takes its cut there is enough to donate $10,000 every fiscal quarter to the Coming Home Hospice and other AIDS-related programs.

On this Thursday night, the crowd was a little smaller, a result of anticipated traffic tie-ups and public protests stemming from the Mission Dolores event. More than a few of the players wore papal miters made of folded newspapers. Other than that, it was bingo as usual.

"Initially, we were going to cancel," said Trey O'Regan, 28, the volunteer who runs the game. "But when we announced it to the crowd, everybody protested. They said they wanted bingo."

Most, but not all, of the players were gay men, keenly aware of the game's higher purpose.

"A lot of people have come and played and then disappeared for a couple of months," O'Regan said. "And then you find out they are dead. It's not morbid. It's just life and the reality of what is going on around here."

In Shadow of Church

O'Regan, whose father is a Catholic deacon in New Orleans, said he believes a few players even had spent their final days across the street, at the hospice that their $1 bingo cards had helped maintain.

The hospice's exterior has not been changed from its years as a convent, and light streams into rooms of clients through panes of stained glass. As the sun drops, the hospice stands literally in the shadow of the church's steeple and cross.

Earlier in the afternoon, O'Regan had stopped his chores setting up the hall and went outside to bid farewell to the AIDS sufferers who had gathered to be bused over to Mission Dolores for the papal event. Some of the men were fighting the last battles of their lost war. Their faces were covered with purple blotches, and the suits they wore did not fit them anymore.

Later, among the bingo players, there were varying degrees of resentment toward the Pope. Many of the 62 AIDS patients, who joined a crowd of 800 at the official greeting ceremony at Mission Dolores, are from Holy Redeemer, and it rankled that the Pope, in official missives, had condemned homosexual acts as an "intrinsic moral evil." Many saw this statement as more than an abstract piece of moral philosophy. They saw it as a personal rejection.

"I think the Pope should be made aware of this bingo game," said Chas Dargis, a 34-year-old professional singer, who was distributing cards among the players. "Gays are pulling together in a Catholic church to help people with AIDS. It is disgraceful the bigotry that comes out of the Vatican."

There was an option other than bingo. Protests by gays upset with the Pope's stance on homosexuality were under way near Mission Dolores. Still, Dargis said, it was more important to be in the church.

"The Pope doesn't care about what I say or think," he said, "but this makes a difference."

O'Regan said the Pope really wasn't an issue. "I really don't have any feelings for the man at all," he said. "I pray to God, and God has seen my work inside and outside the church. And God will be the one who judges me when I die."

O'Regan was acting as master of ceremonies, calling out bingo numbers from the hall stage, when shortly after dark the two busloads of AIDs victims and their families pulled up. It was cold outside, and the sick men, shivering, were ushered inside and given cups of coffee.

The players kept looking up from their bingo cards to cast glances at the newcomers at the back of the hall, curious. But the game went on.

"O-64," O'Regan called out. "O-six-four."

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