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Winter 2003 | Volume 26, Number 1

Five Stories of Faith, Hope and AIDS

“I heard a voice say to me, ‘There’s one more person you need to help.’”

Tim (who asked us to withhold his last name) is a Seattle Pacific University alumnus living with AIDS. To combat the disease, Tim takes the current state-of-the-art treatment: the “AIDS cocktail,” which in his case is a daily regimen of 72 pills. However, his doctors tell him that the medications no longer seem to be doing their job. Tim is running out of treatment options and knows his remaining time may be short.

“Personal faith that God has a plan for me here, and my friends, are what has kept me going,” says Tim.  

Tim earned his degree from Seattle Pacific in the early 1970s. Partway through graduate school, he ran out of money, decided to get a job, and began a career in international sales and marketing for a foreign airline. “I was so successful and having so much fun that I got to the point where I didn’t have time to spend in the Bible and in prayer anymore,” he explains. “Later on, I told God to get out of my life, because I didn’t have time for him, I didn’t need him, and also because the guilt I was feeling was interfering with what I wanted to do.”

But in 1994, a 130-mph crash on Germany’s Autobahn left Tim and several of his friends seriously injured. He made a difficult recovery and regarded the experience as a spiritual wake-up call.

Three years later, he was diagnosed with HIV. He may have contracted the virus from infected blood in the crash, but doesn’t know for sure. He kept his illness a secret at work — “If they had known, I would have been terminated on the spot” — but says he still encountered rejection in both church and social circles: “I could watch people literally back up several steps away from me if they found out I was HIV-positive.”

At University Presbyterian Church, where he is now a member, he started a support group for Christians with HIV/AIDS in the greater Seattle area. Many members of the group, he says, were asked to leave their churches because they were HIV-positive. His goal is to bring those people back to a relationship with God and to get them into churches that will accept them.

Tim lives in a Seattle apartment surrounded by plants and classical music recordings. Though he is no longer well enough to work, he keeps busy. In addition to leading the support group, he has served as a “Stephen minister” to help church members in crisis; participated in an AIDS Care-Team through Multifaith Works; become a spiritual mentor to several college students; and spoken in other churches about his experience and God’s faithfulness.

Just before he lost consciousness in the 1994 car crash, Tim recalls, “Very distinctly I heard a voice say to me, ‘There’s one more person you need to help.’” He isn’t sure whether he’s met that person yet — but he’s lost track of the number of lives he has touched. “God still has a definite plan and purpose for me,” he says confidently. “He’s allowing me to reach out and help others who are hurting.”

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, everybody dies of something.’”

In many African countries, governments are overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for citizens with AIDS. Marti Oaks Ensign ’52 and Leonard Ensign ’51 are among the Seattle Pacific University alumni who serve on the front lines of the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Retired medical missionaries — she’s a lab technician, he’s an anesthesiologist — they worked full-time in Free Methodist hospitals in Rwanda and Burundi during the 1960s. AIDS was unknown then, but since the outbreak of the disease, the Ensigns return regularly to those hospitals, bringing volunteer teams of physicians and dentists to help treat people with HIV.

On these trips, Marti serves as coordinator and translator — she speaks French, the colonial language, as well as Kirundi, the native tongue — and Leonard rolls up his sleeves and helps in surgery. “When he goes to Africa, he gets unretired,” observes Marti. “They don’t care whether your license is current or not; they just want help.”

While in Africa, the Ensigns work alongside another pair of SPU alumni, medical doctor Frank Ogden ’57 and Carol Watson Ogden ’71, whose service with Free Methodist World Missions in Burundi has been interrupted only by the region’s bouts of political and ethnic turmoil. “Very often, Frank has been the only Western doctor in Burundi who has had the courage to stick around,” says Marti.

HIV infection rates in some African countries are running as high as 30 percent. “AIDS is not a homosexual disease in Africa,” explains Marti. “Homosexuality there is almost totally unknown.” However, she says, promiscuity and prostitution are common, and many people are malnourished and suffer from other sexually transmitted diseases, leaving them more susceptible to the virus. The numbers are staggering: Today, 28.1 million people in Africa are infected with HIV, and 2.3 million died in 2001. Eleven million African children are AIDS orphans — a number that’s projected to more than double by the end of the decade.

Marti is aware of these grim statistics, but isn’t deterred by them. “I think our number one priority in our hospitals is to make sure that patients know about their final destination,” she says, “and then we minister not only to their physical bodies, but to their spirits and their families.”

Both at home and abroad, Marti has encountered indifference. Sometimes, she recounts, when she counsels Africans against risky behavior, “I’ve had people say, ‘Well, everybody dies of something.’ They obviously have never seen an AIDS death, because it’s truly a terrible way to die.” And in America, she observes, the question for the church is whether or not to obey the Bible’s call to be compassionate — not only to AIDS victims but also to their survivors: “It comes down to support of families. What are you going to do with all these orphans and widows?”

“If we can’t find healing in the church, where else can we go?”

In a world where AIDS can complicate relationships, Kelley Bourland Unger ’83 took a leap of faith. The program and budget manager in Seattle Pacific University’s School of Psychology, Family and Community married her husband, Tom, knowing that he was HIV-positive.

Tom experienced several incidents of sexual abuse in his youth. One of the perpetrators, a youth pastor from another church in his hometown, later died of AIDS. Like many victims of such abuse, Tom battled to regain a sense of selfworth, and turned for a while to a sexually promiscuous lifestyle. In 1984, he learned he had contracted HIV, although he didn’t know where or when.

Despite his lifestyle, Tom remained in the church and recommitted his life to Christ in 1983. He was attending First Free Methodist Church in Seattle and working at SPU as a sign-language interpreter when he and Kelley met. As they got to know one another, he gradually told her about his past and about his infection. She didn’t reject him.

“God brought Tom into my life to expand my experience of God and my ability to trust,” says Kelley. “It was not a struggle to make the decision to marry him, but it was a struggle to decide how much we were going to share with other people.” They married in 1986, and always took precautions to prevent Kelley from contracting the virus. They didn’t tell anyone about Tom’s HIV status until 15 months later.

Once their secret was out, the Ungers not only found support within their families and their church, they also began a ministry, speaking in churches and schools across Western Washington to raise HIV awareness until Tom’s death in 1994.

“Many times when we would share our story, people would open up and share the secrets in their own lives,“ says Kelley. “It saddens me to think of how many people are keeping AIDS, addictions, abortions — and a myriad of other things — from each other because of fear. The church is a place for brokenness; everyone is human; and no one’s sin is worse than another’s sin. If we can’t share our humanness and find healing in the church, where else can we go?”

“I felt a strong leading to get involved and start to change things in my own small way.”

“I’d always felt that the church hadn’t done a really good job of responding to the AIDS crisis,” says Tracy Cooper, Seattle Pacific University’s media relations manager. “I felt a strong leading by the Holy Spirit to get involved and to start to change things in my own small way.”

Like a number of other SPU faculty, staff and students, Tracy serves on a CareTeam with Multifaith Works, a Seattle-based organization that has a 14-year history of serving AIDS patients. Founded by the late Gwen Beighle, a chaplain at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, Multifaith Works organizes people from various faith backgrounds into “CareTeams,” each of which is responsible for a “CarePartner” — a person infected with HIV. Teams support their Care-Partners by helping out with household duties, meals or transportation; through emotional support and friendship; or by just getting together for a movie or birthday party. Currently, Multifaith Works has 40 CareTeams in Seattle, serving 45 CarePartners, including men, women, teenagers and children.

Before joining a CareTeam, prospective members participate in a one-day training session. “You learn how AIDS is spread and not spread,” says Tracy. “You can’t get HIV or AIDS by hugging someone, for example.” They’re also brought up to date on statistics. In King County, for example, the majority of people with HIV are no longer homosexual Caucasian men; the disease is spreading faster among women, children and African Americans.

CarePartners are referred to Multifaith Works by case managers at AIDS clinics or social service agencies. Many of them have no other contact with Christianity, and the CareTeams are under instructions to tread lightly. “It’s lifestyle evangelism,” says Tracy, who co-leads her CareTeam, based at Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church. “You come alongside someone and get to know them … and God always gives you an opportunity to talk about him; I’ve seen it happen again and again.”

So what about the tension that has sometimes existed between Christians and people with AIDS? “If it’s a population the church has been harsh on, that’s even another reason to show Jesus’ love to these people,” says SPU senior Traci Randolph, who serves on Tracy Cooper’s team along with Carmen Musgrave ’02 and Noelle Smithhart ’02.

Adds Cooper: “Anything is scary if you don’t know anything about it. But once you learn about AIDS and meet someone with the disease, it’s not as scary. I think stereotypes have been broken down on both sides — not only with Christians meeting people with HIV/AIDS, but with them meeting Christians.”

“If you’re doing good clinical work, you’re going to feel your patients’ suffering.”


Thanks to medical advances, people with HIV can survive for years, checking into hospitals only during acute phases of the illness. But most families and patients still need help coping with pain, fatigue, fear and the demands of treatment. Today, they often get such help from a specialist in medical family therapy — and that specialist just might have been trained in a new graduate program in Seattle Pacific University’s School of Psychology, Family and Community.

Led by Instructor Tina Schermer Sellers, the SPU Medical Family Therapy program trains students to counsel chronically ill patients, including those with AIDS. Her students combine coursework with internships in hospitals and clinics, helping patients cope with their illnesses by building a support network of friends, family and church — an approach shown to have significant health benefits.

Yet her students are as much changed by the work as the patients they help. “If you’re doing good clinical work, you’re going to feel your patients’ suffering,” Tina adds. “You’ll be sitting inside their world, which is filled with pain and uncertainty. Students who have those experiences grow in strength and courage and wisdom. They’re different on the other side.”

That’s what he has experienced, says Robert Beilke, adjunct professor at SPU and director of the Pediatric Psychology Service at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. For the past six years, Robert has volunteered with Northwest REACH, an annual four-day camp for children and their families affected by HIV/AIDS. Sponsored by REACH Ministries, the camp is staffed mostly by volunteers and is free for participants, who numbered over 180 last year.

Families affected by HIV often feel isolated, says Robert, and the camp helps them realize they’re not alone. “They don’t have to worry about rejection or stigmatization, and their children — maybe for the first time in their lives — don’t have to worry about being different from other children,” he says. The camp, in fact, provides the support network Tina says is vital. But volunteers also benefit. Although he first volunteered just “to help out,” Robert says he returns because of the blessing he receives from the children and families.

Tina and Robert have both discovered that working with people affected by HIV/AIDS grounds them in something much deeper than medical research; they say helping people is not only a therapist’s job but also a Christian’s duty. “The church has a responsibility to reach out to people who are suffering,” says Tina. “We need to suspend our judgments about what created that suffering, because that’s not what’s important.”


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