By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2013
ATLANTA—Mary Paetsch carries a leather portfolio filled with loose papers. It’s sort of a diary. She scribbles on the papers phone messages from people with HIV and AIDS who have turned to the AIDS ministry at St. Ann’s Church pleading for help.
Her cryptic notes tell of the aid given: February 1998: rent; November 1999: Georgia Power: $112.48.
“We’ve lost several close ones. It’s not what spurs me on. You do pray for their souls, you have to do that part. I’m going to concentrate on the ones who phone us now,” said Paetsch.
It’s just a small window into the needs of people living with the disease.
“My notes go so far back, it’s ridiculous,” she said, flipping through nearly 15 years of notes.
This parish in east Cobb County started a ministry for people with HIV/AIDS more than 20 years ago.
The days when the ministry lost eight of its clients in six months is over.
“It’s a different ballgame now. That’s not—thank God—happening anymore,” said Sharon Collins, a longtime minister leader. Now, the focus is on “seeing that people have their basic needs,” she said.
Like others who have embraced this ministry, they’ve adjusted their focus as drug treatments for HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, and AIDS changed what was once a diagnosis of death to survival, with long-term regimens.
The emergency aid from the ministry keeps the power on, the lights working and food in the cupboards.
People who are ill with any disease face challenges, Collins said.
“I am sick. I cannot do what I used to do. Can I feed my family? Sometimes those basic needs are taken away from you,” she said.
This parish in Cobb County operates a hotline, where people make requests. The ministry limits its service to people living in the county and north Fulton County. They also adopted a strict requirement that people seeking aid must first be linked with a caseworker at a local nonprofit or county public health department.
Caring for people, whether driving someone to the doctor or helping with their bills, is the focus, Collins said.
“It’s just about people who are sick,” she said. How people contracted the disease is unimportant to the ministry, she said. “That’s not what the issue is about. People were sick and needed help.”
The world paused on Dec. 1 to remember those who are living with HIV/AIDS and the millions who died from the disease. According to the World Health Organization, 35.3 million people in the world are living with HIV infection. AIDS is a syndrome that can develop in advanced stages of HIV infection.
The observance on Sunday, Dec. 1, reminded people that it’s a global situation, not just one group of people or one community, Collins said.
“It doesn’t let people forget,” she said.
World AIDS Day 2013 marks the 25th year people have gathered to support one another and pray for the dead. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated Mass at Holy Cross Church in Atlanta with the women and men who serve those with the illness and their families.
In Advent, the season of waiting, the world also “pauses to remember the great sorrow and the equally great hope that HIV/AIDS has placed within the heart of the entire human family,” the archbishop said.
“The sorrow is quite easy to name as tens of thousands of our loved ones have been taken from us by this disease,” he said. “Yet there has also developed a resiliency and a determination that has sustained countless thousands of people and today we praise God for this courage and the hope that it engenders. HIV/AIDS has made us a stronger people and a more resolute community to find a cure for this illness and to keep the stigma of the disease from destroying the unity and the compassion that must be the legacy of our faith in Christ Jesus.”
The annual World AIDS Day Mass is organized by the Justice and Peace Ministries of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“Because we are Catholic, our faith calls us to respond to the crisis of HIV and AIDS,” said Kat Doyle, director of the ministries. The church’s response is rooted in Catholic social teaching, which upholds the dignity of all people, she said.
The challenge for some is getting past the uncomfortable nature of how people contract the disease and how to treat people with the illness, she said.
Doyle said her office would like to help parishes who are interested in establishing a ministry and also help educate people with a Catholic approach to AIDS education.
Doyle said her office wants to work with parishes to use available grant money, from bringing in local speakers to learning how to advocate for people with the disease.
At St. Ann’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, HIV-positive parents leave with a generous portion of groceries. Susie Dibble likes to give enough so the money they save on food can pay other bills.
“I try to give them enough to make a difference,” she said.
She’s done the work for several years and was surprised at first to see parents show up.
“It’s different than what you think. Everyone I see has family,” she said.
The disease has faded from the headlines, but it has not gone away. Scientists have not found a cure.
Georgia was ranked sixth highest in the nation for the total number of adults and adolescents living with HIV infections in 2010, according to the state Public Health Department. As of Dec. 31, 2012, there were 50,436 people in Georgia with HIV infection. Two-thirds live in metro Atlanta counties.
Some 2,911 people in Georgia were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2012, with another 1,370 people diagnosed with AIDS.
Some 55 percent of people newly diagnosed with HIV (not AIDS) were black. The majority of new cases were transmitted by men who have sex with men, and most frequently between the ages of 30-39. However, 71 percent of new HIV cases in Georgia in 2012 had no information on how the infection was transmitted, which can be through other means, including intravenous drug use and heterosexual sex with an infected person.
There is no cure, but progress in treating the disease has been made as science learns how it works.
While in 1995, some 1,533 deaths in Georgia were reported from AIDS, in 2012, the deaths numbered 277.
The life expectancy of an HIV-positive person has changed remarkably with the advent of antiretroviral treatments. A 2008 study found a 20-year-old who started drug treatment between 2003 and 2005 was expected to live to 69. The same study found a non-infected person would have an average life expectancy of 80.
And as medicine changes the quality of life of an HIV-positive person, the ministries also change.
At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta, the ministry refocused its mission as the requests for service dropped off.
“We don’t get any phone calls for direct care,” said Monica Randolph. “We were trying to find new avenues to help and still be involved with AIDS ministry.”
Instead, the organization works with the nonprofit H.E.R.O for Children, which is dedicated to helping children affected by the disease.
“We saw the change. We were no longer doing the support for adults, and we wanted to do something for kids,” she said.
The parish continues to have a very strong link with the Gift of Grace House, a community of Missionaries of Charity sisters who have a home for women with HIV/AIDS.
Some 900 red ribbons were made for parishioners to wear during Masses and at an ecumenical prayer service at St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro.
John Patterson, who retired from the banking industry, used to visit Grady Hospital to spend time with people with the disease years ago. That does not happen anymore, he said. “There’s always going to be a need for an AIDS ministry until there’s a cure,” Patterson said.
The ministry at St. Philip Benizi Church continues to help a handful of ill people but also works to educate people about the disease. Patterson said young people are aware of the disease, but hear a lot of myths. They feel they are immune from it and that it won’t touch them, he said.