A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 7: Not cured, but healed

1986 was off to a running start: The Episcopal Church Foundation granted The Parsonage $10,640 to put on the National Episcopal Church Conference on the AIDS Crisis. The Parsonage had also received grants from Integrity and the Diocese of California to put on the conference, and an especially generous $20,640 from the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for “post-conference follow up geared toward development of a national network to provide AIDS information within the Episcopal Church.” These grants — totaling over $37,000 — helped to put on the first national faith based conference on AIDS. Speaking to the significance of the Episcopal Church Foundation’s gift, Parsonage member Holly McAlpen recently said, “It was bold, because [they] didn’t usually do this stuff. We called in all the favors we had to pull this off.”

Dr. Mathilde Krim — the founder of the AIDS Medical Foundation, a group she helped merge with another to become the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or “amfAR” — was the keynote speaker of the conference. She spoke about the medical truth about AIDS — how it could be contracted and spread, and busted old myths, like a past belief that one would have to be exposed to the virus multiple times to contract it, when in reality, science proves that’s not true. Although that seems intuitive in 2017, it was not in 1986. McAlpen recalled the unknown in 1986, saying, “People were paralyzed by the thought of this disease that nobody knew the genesis of, how it spread, etc.” The comfort of getting some answers and knowledge from a doctor in those times was of utmost importance in people’s lives.

On Wednesday, March 5, 1986, there was an especially memorable Great Service of Healing. According to The Parsonage, more than 500 people sat in the pews of Grace Cathedral to partake in Holy Eucharist and be anointed and healed. In 1986, member of The Parsonage Weston Milliken wrote about a service where “the choir filled the enormous building with their voices as incense billowed from the censer.” In a 2011 interview with Episcopal News Service, conference attendee Bruce Garner remembered the service. “I felt the presence of God so strongly it was like I could reach out and physically touch the Holy Spirit.” He spoke of a visible transformation after people had been anointed, saying, “They were standing straight, and you could tell that they had been healed. They had not been cured, they had been healed, and that was a very important point in my life.” The offering at that service was divided equally between The Parsonage and the National Hope and Help Center — an ad hoc organization housed at The Parsonage created in response to the resolution passed at 1985’s General Convention.

There was no time for rest after the historic conference — The Parsonage had to plan for the second annual Bishop Parsons award dinner. Marion Cedarblade, a speaker at the conference in March, was to receive this year’s award for Social Justice. Resulting from the conference and the Hope and Help Center, The Parsonage lobbied the diocese to hold a mini convention focused on the AIDS crisis. Initially planned for early 1987, with a sharp increase in AIDS diagnoses, it got prioritized and was held in conjunction with what Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning declared Sunday, November 9, 1986 to be an intentional day for “all Christians to join me…in prayer and intercessions for people with AIDS.” With less time to plan, prepare, and promote the event, The Parsonage and the Hope and Help Center were pleasantly shocked when 200 people showed up — quadruple the 50 pre-registrations received.

The Parsonage, as usual, had kept up with commissioning of more Parsons, providing a home for many anonymous groups, and it continued to introduce new ones as well. A specific support group with medical doctors was created for people considering getting tested for the AIDS antibodies, people awaiting their results, and people who had their results but needed more information. Bishop Swing had spoken out publicly against the LaRouche initiative in CA, one that would put AIDS on the list of communicable diseases, which are ones that can be spread through insects, the air, or other “casual contact.” Science knew even then that this was not true, and the initiative did not pass. The Supreme Court that year however had ruled against consensual sex between men, which wouldn’t be reversed by that court until 2003.

But the future at The Parsonage still looked bright. They were again revamping their organizational and leadership structure to meet the new needs of the rapidly changing times and responding to calls from women, including Dr. Bonita Palmer. 1987 would bring to the forefront discussions about the intersection of “feminism and gayness.”

For more of the living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community series, click here.