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An End to His Life, Not His Message

Irvine evangelist who had AIDS helped raise churches' awareness. His videotaped remarks will be shown Thursday at his memorial service.

July 20, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

The featured speaker at the Rev. Herb Hall's memorial service Thursday will be Herb Hall.

The evangelist, credited with helping close the gap of ignorance and fear that stood between HIV-infected Christians and their churches, videotaped a message for family and friends three weeks before he died July 12 in Garden Grove of complications stemming from AIDS.

"Today I'm with [Jesus] rejoicing in a brand new home for eternity, in a brand new body -- no more pain, no more sorrow, no more suffering," said Hall, in a three-minute address that will be shown at Village Church of Irvine at 7 p.m.

Hall, 47, publicly acknowledged he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome shortly after he was diagnosed in 1989. Doctors gave him six months to live. Then a layperson, he was ostracized by his Garden Grove church. But he soon stumbled upon a fledgling two-member support group for people with HIV at Village Church of Irvine and went on to co-found He Intends Victory, a ministry to comfort Christians with AIDS and educate churches about the disease.

"He played a unique role in providing a bridge between the HIV community and Christian and faith communities," said Pearl Jemison-Smith, founding member of the AIDS Services Foundation, Orange County.

At 6 foot 5, Hall was an imposing figure among evangelicals. Dan Wooding, who runs a Christian news service, remembered when He Intends Victory staffed its first booth at a National Religious Broadcasters convention in the early 1990s.

"There were looks of terror on the faces of some of these broadcasters," said Wooding, who serves on the board of the ministry. "It's changed a lot since then. Herb was definitely a pioneer."

His message was simple: Christians need to treat HIV-infected people like Jesus would have -- with unconditional love.

Though his claim that he had repented and given up the "homosexual lifestyle" angered some gay leaders, Hall counted among his friends members of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, a group that engages in civil disobedience.

Wooding said that, at the first World AIDS Conference he attended, he was amazed to see Hall walk "right into the middle all of the ACT UP people and be warmly greeted. He then introduced me to this unusual group of people."

In order to build He Intends Victory into an international ministry, Hall traveled around the world. At every stop, he told his story while giving his ABCs on AIDS prevention: abstinence, be faithful, and condom use with an infected partner. He was ordained in 1995.

"By Herb putting a face on AIDS, we were able to open a lot of hearts that had been so closed," said Bruce A. Sonnenberg, senior pastor of Village Church of Irvine.

Hall, who worked a variety of security jobs before his illness, insisted that the ministry's materials, including a book that features inspirational stories about HIV-infected Christians, be given away free.

His radio interviews often featured fellow Christian callers who told him AIDS was God's judgment on the gay community or that he deserved it for engaging in homosexual acts.

"He wouldn't argue," Wooding said. "He didn't want to get into arguments with people that ignorant. He would always be more reasonable than me."

His high profile in the Christian media also brought comfort to evangelicals secretly suffering from AIDS. One of them was Dan Davis, a Phoenix resident who spent 26 years living a double life as a married man and father who covertly engaged in gay sex and was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994.

"I just needed some company and someone to talk to," said Davis, about what prompted him to call He Intends Victory headquarters after hearing about it on the radio. "And Herb answered the phone."

Hall eventually traveled to Arizona to support Davis when he told his Phoenix congregation that he had AIDS.

"I was petrified," said Davis, whose confession was followed by Hall's testimony. He told the congregants that AIDS patients were modern-day lepers and that they needed to be treated with the same tenderness that Jesus gave to the lepers in the Gospels.

"After Herb had spoken, they understood I needed to be loved unconditionally."

Friends said Hall had to overcome depression over his AIDS diagnosis and a subsequent suicide attempt before realizing that helping other HIV-infected Christians was his life's calling.

"He really found himself when he got AIDS," Wooding said. "He packed more in that little time than most do in a lifetime."

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