This weekend, Saddleback Church will honor World AIDS Day by offering free on-site HIV testing. During the weekend service, we'll also show you how you can get involved in the fight to end HIV&AIDS. As we kick off this important weekend, we bring the story of a man living with AIDS who found community, purpose, and a way to live a fulfilled life as he lives with AIDS.
Here’s Tony’s story:
“Thirty-four years ago my father, a German Jew, had an affair with my birth mother, an African-American Indian. I was the result of that affair. My birth mother could not raise me so I went to live with my father and his wife. They raised me as best they could, but I felt and looked different from everyone else in my conservative Orange County neighborhood.
Life continued “normally” for me throughout my childhood years., but when I was 18 I came down with tuberculosis. I got sicker and sicker and finally I was tested for HIV. The test came back positive and my life suddenly changed forever.
At this point in my story, people often ask, “How did you catch it?”
I want to say to you that it doesn’t matter how anyone “catches” HIV anymore than it matters how someone “catches” leprosy or the flu. The fact is, the suffering person needs help and the healing touch of human kindness.
My father knew my diagnosis but cautioned me to not tell any other members of my family. Suddenly, I became isolated and secretive. I could not be authentic with my family, friends or neighbors.
Move forward ten years, to the age of 28. I was living in Section 8 housing. By that time, all my peers were moving on with their lives. Many had married, started families, and were moving forward in their careers. But because my meds were (and are) so expensive and caused such difficult side effects, I was unable to work or afford medical insurance.
It seemed that everyone was moving forward in life and hitting all the usual milestones. Everyone but me.
I had few friends. I was isolated, angry and combative. I constantly complained to myself about “poor me” and “why me?” I watched a lot of television and one night Pastor Rick Warren was on Larry King Live. He talked about one of the signature issues of the church being an HIV ministry. That caught my attention. I remembered that Saddleback Church was only a few miles from me so I decided to go check them out.
I went to the administrative office, and for the first time, told strangers about my HIV status. I was so scared and I remember crying. They sent me to a support group and later assigned a “Care Team” to assist me with everyday kinds of support. I was taken to doctor appointments, I received help with shopping, and we event went to museums because the Care Team said my spirit needed stimulation.
Even through all this, I did not want to hear about Jesus - I still identified with my father’s Jewish religion. I did not even want to step a foot on the church campus other than the one time I went to the administrative offices or to attend the support group. I had heard some ugly things reported by the media about what some Christians had said regarding HIV&AIDS.
How I realized I needed Jesus
About five years ago, the church had an international conference about AIDS. My Care Team really wanted me to go. The church got me a scholarship and I had no excuses so off I went. My T-cell count was dangerously low at that time and I needed wheelchair support. They pushed me all over the campus and suddenly I was not keeping my secret anymore. Rick Warren knew my HIV status but he hugged me anyway.
I began to feel that I didn’t want to be left behind. I wanted to feel that this is not all there is – that there is a heavenly place to go to when all the suffering of this life is over. I was a bit scared. I didn’t want to throw my father’s religion away, but I needed more. My Care Team spoke to me about Jews for Jesus and gradually I began to see a path I could take to healing light of Christ.
How I Committed My Life to Jesus
I began going to Saddleback Church services. Gradually, I felt myself ‘lighten up.’ I wasn’t having such dark moods anymore and I found myself enjoying my new friendships. Most of the people on my Care Team were retired but young at heart. I had been young, but old at heart. We somehow made it work.
One of my Care Team members, Karlah, was going on a cruise at Christmas in 2008. I called her before she left for the cruise and said, “Karlah, you’re going on a trip one day and I want to do with you.”
She said, “Does this mean what I think it means?”
I said, “Yes.”
She said, “I’ll be right over.”
There we were at Christmas saying the Sinner’s Prayer. My glorious Christmas gift that year was the gift of a loving savior who will be with me now and forever. Finally, in the spring of 2010 Rick Warren baptized me.
The Difference It Has Made In My Life
I’m 34 now. I still live with HIV and I still live in Section 8 housing. I struggle with my meds and the side effects of long-term usage. I still need to keep my secret with certain people. A lot of my “peeps” continue to be the older folks who aren’t off working and doing the things normal 34 year-olds do. But, now I know I have a church family who loves me and accepts me just as I am. Warts and all.
Every morning when I say my prayers, I always thank God first for all my blessings. I am blessed to live in the United States where there is a safety net that supports me. I am blessed to have friends who help me and who I can help. I am blessed to have a savior who has always loved me and will love me forever.
I’m not so isolated anymore. I look for ways to volunteer. I volunteer at the hospital doing office work. I also volunteer at ASF (AIDS Services Foundation) and Shanti where I do office work. Maybe someday I’ll be able to get a job. I’m still angry and combative at times and when that happens I always ask for forgiveness and know that Jesus is there for me in his ever loving and ever forgiving presence. I still wear the Star of David because that is who I am. I’m a Jew who has come to know and love Jesus.
How You Can Ask Jesus to Come Into Your Life
Everyone is different. Everyone will have a different story. The important thing is that at some time you simply accept the loving grace that Christ offers. In my case, it was important for me to see people being the “hands and feet” of Jesus. The more they loved me the more I felt lovable. Eventually, I felt worthy enough to ask Jesus to be my friend and Savior."
MORE ABOUT FREE HIV TESTING
Saddleback Church is facilitating FREE HIV Testing for church attenders and the community at large on World AIDS Day Weekend, December 1 & 2, 2012. HIV Testing will be at the PEACE Community Resource Center, located at 1 Purpose Drive, just north of the intersection of Portola Parkway and Purpose Drive, Lake Forest, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. both days. Testing is completely confidential. For more information, please call Bill Mugford at (949) 609.8295.
MORE ABOUT SADDLEBACK'S HIV&AIDS INITIATIVE
Kay Warren is the founder and leader of Saddleback Church’s HIV&AIDS Initiative. “The HIV&AIDS Initiative at Saddleback was born out of the conviction that God cares about sick people – he loves people who are HIV positive,” explains Warren. “A study of Scripture reveals a God who is passionate about the sick. If we link arms together, united in vision and purpose, we can bring healing and hope to millions of people infected and affected by HIV&AIDS. In fact, we can do even more than that: we can end AIDS.”
LEARN MORE AT HIVAIDSINITIATIVE.COM