WASHINGTON — Under a canopy of skylights in a modern church two blocks from the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., worshippers are dancing and singing an African American spiritual: "We are Marching in the Light of God."
On the wall hangs parts of the quilt commemorating AIDS victims. And Reverend David North preaches that the dead are not really gone.
"You're still here!" he says, referring to the names on the colorful quilt. "All the beauty and the wonder that you as an individual were, is still here. It's still alive."
Metropolitan Community Churches is a Protestant organization that serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It was founded in the late-1960s, when other churches rejected homosexuality, and it now has several hundred places of worship across the country.
North was a Baptist minister when he tested HIV positive in 1991. He was kicked out of his church, and his wife refused to let him see his children because he is gay.
"I lost everything - job, family, everything," he said in an interview after one of the daily devotional services that was held during the July 22-27 AIDS conference.
AIDS has presented many Christians with a dilemma. Should people with HIV be condemned for behavior that may have given them the virus? Or should they be helped, in the name of compassion?
When the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, some Christian leaders chose the former. “AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals. It is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals,” said televangelist Jerry Falwell.
But attitudes have evolved since then, in part, because of clergy who found themselves with the virus that causes AIDS.
Christo Greyling is a Dutch Reformed pastor from South Africa. He is also a hemophiliac. His congregation took it in stride when he told them he contracted HIV from tainted blood.
"And then one person came after church to me, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve got sympathy with you because you contracted HIV in an innocent way. But those people, those people who got it through sex, they brought it on themselves," Greyling recalled in an interview at the AIDS conference. "And that’s for me where the penny dropped, that as people of faith, as church leaders, we cannot work with the concept of those and us."
In 2006, Greyling helped found INERELA+, an African-based organization for religious leaders with HIV. It has 7,000 members worldwide from a variety of faiths.
Greyling is also HIV and infectious disease director for World Vision, one of the largest evangelical aid organizations, where he trains religious leaders to fight discrimination against people with HIV. He says condoms must be part of the fight against the epidemic.
"God’s will is that we live our lives according to his will - to be abstinent, to be faithful in our relationships," he says. "But we realize that not everyone might be able to make those choices."
During the conference, Greyling spoke at a summit of evangelical and other Christian leaders concerned about AIDS. He praised them for a pragmatic approach that he says was in short supply back when he disclosed his diagnosis.
"Since 1991 until now, I think we can celebrate that the church and the faith community has moved way out, further, in terms of our advances, from the way we were," he said.
Their prodding led one evangelical Christian, former President George W. Bush, to start an AIDS initiative that is credited with saving many lives.
As for Reverend North, his life has also changed. He won a precedent-setting custody battle and reconciled with his biological family. His HIV has been suppressed.
"So all that I had lost," he says, "I've not only gained, but I've regained even more", including a gay-friendly church where he can serve God.