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AIDS Revives the Christian Crusade to 'Save' Gays : Critics Decry 'Death-Bed' Conversions

December 06, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

What's Worse than Dying From AIDS? Dying Without Jesus

--Flyer distributed by a Los Angeles change ministry.

To a gay man hospitalized with AIDS, Jonathan Hunter must appear like an angelic emissary--he has a face right out of GQ magazine. The impression can only be strengthened as Hunter begins to speak: "If you have any questions about God, feel free to ask me. . . ."

Hunter may look like a gift from heaven, but some people say he may be inadvertently contributing to the hell experienced by people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The 37-year-old model and former actor works for Desert Stream, a Santa Monica-based change ministry. Change ministries, also called ex-gay ministries, aim to deliver people of what they consider to be the sin of homosexuality--either by "converting" them to heterosexuality or by persuading them to repent. The ministries have long provoked criticism from the gay community, which argues that conversion is impossible because homosexuality is not a matter of choice. The ministries have recently refueled the controversy by targeting AIDS patients for their messages.

Visits to Hospitals

Hunter, who heads Desert Stream's AIDS Resource Ministry, said he and his 15 volunteers have visited AIDS patients in "quite a few" Los Angeles area hospitals. Patients at San Francisco General Hospital have been visited by representatives of Love in Action, a San Rafael change ministry, according to that group's director. And in Santa Ana, the director of the change ministry New Creations said his group intends to begin outreach to AIDS patients in Orange County.

And, though they claim not to be pursuing people with AIDS, a change ministry of the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle in Los Angeles says it has distributed 75,000 flyers in West Hollywood showing a photograph of Kaposi's sarcoma (the skin cancer that often accompanies AIDS) lesions on a man's face. The text includes this biblical quotation: "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."

In yet another link between people with AIDS and ex-gays, Jim Johnson, director of the Long Beach AIDS hospice Beyond Rejection, is a veteran of several change organizations and maintains close ties to them, although he said he does not minister to his clients on spiritual matters. Michael Weinstein, coordinator of the L.A. AIDS Hospice Committee, is not convinced, however, that Johnson's religious views don't enter into his work with AIDS patients.

"The taint of his prior association is very serious," Weinstein said. "It's very, very troublesome to me."

Critics in general are alarmed by the extent of the ministries' activities focusing on AIDS patients, decrying what one called the groups' "death-bed conversion" tactics.

"The last thing any of these people need to hear is that homosexuality is evil," said Father Patrick Traynor, coordinator of chaplaincy services at UCLA Medical Center. "The danger is putting people into a real guilt trip when they're facing death."

'Lethal, Inappropriate'

The Rev. Connie Hartquist, head of the Episcopal chaplaincy at San Francisco General Hospital, said she considers the ministries to be "just lethal, inappropriate." She said her staff asks representatives of change ministries to leave the hospital unless the patient has invited them to his bedside.

An article in the September issue of The Advocate, a national gay magazine, alleged that Hunter and his crew have been visiting patients at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center without invitation. Ed Gilman, formerly a volunteer at the hospital, said he has talked with AIDS patients who were upset by unsolicited visits from Hunter and other Desert Stream volunteers. Gilman, a 59-year-old retired accountant, said he also has observed people from AIDS Resource Ministry going from the bedside of one AIDS patient to the next at County Hospital.

Hunter says he has visited patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente, Encino and County-General hospitals among others. But Andy Comiskey, director of Desert Stream, which is an outreach of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian church, said that they only approach AIDS patients when invited by the patient or a patient's relative.

"We're getting pigeonholed as this cantankerous band of homophobes roving the hospitals," he said, objecting to The Advocate's accusations.

Noelle Miller, a psychosocial services worker who counsels AIDS patients at Midway Medical Center in Los Angeles, said that visitation at the request of a family member, without permission of the patient, is unethical, an opinion shared by other hospital workers. Miller said that in an attempt to head off proselytizing by change ministries, her hospital is enforcing its policy of requiring volunteer workers to wear photo name badges.

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