Offering grace for the journey
July 26 2002 by Jimmy Allen , BR Assistant Editor

Offering grace for the journey | Friday, July 26, 2002

Friday, July 26, 2002

Offering grace for the journey

By Jimmy Allen BR Assistant Editor

CARAWAY - Richard Eller understands the fear Jesus likely faced during the last days of His earthly ministry.

Like Jesus heading to the cross on Good Friday, Eller is heading toward the day he will stop undergoing kidney dialysis. It's a decision that will probably mean his death.

He'll eat vegetables and exclude meat after Aug. 16 so his body will more easily handle the effects of having no operating kidney to cleanse toxins from his blood.

"I figure it'll take a week or two to hit hard," Eller said.

"I'm positive (in outlook). I was real scared for a long time. I still am. ... Jesus Christ was scared, too. Walking through town carrying the cross, He was scared, too."

Eller's kidneys stopped functioning because of a string of medical problems related to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, commonly known as AIDS. He also has leukemia and a disease called CMV that started in his stomach and then moved to his right eye, blocking his vision. The next stop for the disease is his left eye. Eller calls the first drug given to him to stop the CMV a "kidney killer." In addition, he suffered a small heart attack. Two years ago, he needed 156 pints of blood during the year.

"It's been one battle after another."

The whole second week of July was spent in the hospital. He got out on Friday so he could leave the next Monday for a five-day retreat for people with HIV/AIDS at Caraway Conference Center. The retreat, one of two held each year for people living with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers, was sponsored by Baptist AIDS Partnership of North Carolina (BAPNC) in partnership with the Baptist State Convention. Eller wanted to make sure he could attend the retreat, knowing it would likely be his last.

Although his family in Kings Mountain has been supportive, he also wanted to attend the retreat because "I just needed some friends," Eller said.

Eller was one of 36 people (including 11 staff members) who gathered from Monday afternoon through Friday morning for a daily schedule of testimonies about issues in their lives, small group discussions, Bible studies, seminars, worship services and special activities.

The theme throughout the retreat was reflected in the name, "Grace for the journey."

The retreat is a place where people like Eller can live for a short time without being stigmatized as having HIV/AIDS.

Although HIV/AIDS was initially called Gay Related Immune Deficiency in the late 1970s, the disease affects many more than those who are homosexual. Eller got the disease from a girlfriend after his divorce. A man in West Virginia, who still denies he has the disease, infected the girlfriend, Eller said.

The disease is transmitted through blood or semen, according to Geraldine Whitley, an HIV instructor from Wilson County who served as a staff member and doesn't have HIV/AIDS.

Her nephew, Myk Wilkins, attended the retreats before he died of AIDS. Some of his family rejected him. "We accepted him where he was," Whitley said. The episode helped her realize that many AIDS patients are alone and she began ministering to them in the Wilson area by taking them to the doctor (usually out of town because of the stigma associated with the disease that could affect family members as well as the patient), taking them to the grocery store and being someone who cares.

Whitley also leads the Bible study at the retreat and sings with the retreat choir.

Participants noted that many seminars and retreats are held for people living with HIV/AIDS. This one focuses on the soul of the person with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers.

Sheila Evans of Raleigh attended her first retreat last month. The retreat helps people live with the disease and also know about Jesus. "It's almost like having your cake and ice cream, too," Evans said. "It's just good. I thank God that there is a program like this. They're putting Jesus at the forefront of everything."

The retreat started in 1995. Two years later, the first person was baptized during the retreat. Since then, at least one person has been baptized every year. Two years ago, three were baptized. Last year, two people were baptized.

This year, Joyce Donevan was baptized. Her baptism came about a week after she had decided to commit suicide. She said she was "sick and tired of being tired." Her liver is deteriorating from AIDS and now that deterioration has affected the right side of her brain. Donevan said she didn't have faith the week before the retreat. "I didn't have God." She had wanted to attend the retreat but was put on a waiting list. Just a few days before the retreat was to begin, Eric Raddatz, executive director of the BAPNC, called and said he had an opening. She went.

At the beginning of the week, she met with the retreat's preacher, Philip Elliott, a 2001 Campbell University Divinity School graduate and pastor of a church in Virginia, to ask if he would conduct her funeral. He asked her if she had God in her life. She said no. "He showed me how. He prayed for me, and I felt it," Donevan said.

Donevan was raised in a Baptist church, she said, and was baptized as a child. But she did it only because others wanted her, too, she said.

"If you had seen me last week, you wouldn't have seen all these smiles," she said.

Raddatz said about 50 people living with HIV/AIDS were turned away from attending the retreat. Although some denominations may have a retreat with 200 people, it's impossible for staff members to get to know that many participants one-on-one. Those types of retreats become strictly a time of preaching, he said.

If BAPNC had the money, Raddatz said he would have more of the smaller retreats instead of one large retreat. Each retreat costs about $8,000, he said. In addition to the BSC, sponsors of BAPNC include about 10 churches, individuals and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. For more information on BAPNC, see the ministry's Web site at www.baptistaidspartnership.org or write to BAPNC, P.O. Box 1318, Wake Forest, N.C. 27588.

Sometimes Raddatz is asked if the retreat addresses homosexuality. The question usually is, "Do you tell these people the truth?" Raddatz said. His response: "We preach God's grace and love. You can't argue with grace and love."

Specific sins aren't targeted during the retreat, he said. "We don't talk about lifestyle unless it's brought up," he said. "We talk about God's love and grace and opportunity to seek forgiveness." Raddatz said they let the Holy Spirit do the convicting.

Brenda Boberg served as a facilitator during the retreat. She doesn't have AIDS, but her brother died from the disease. "AIDS has such a stigma," she said. Her family had trouble accepting her brother. She went to Ohio to visit him before he died and asked him about his belief in Jesus Christ. He told her, "You're the first person who cared enough to ask."

"He ended up accepting Christ. I know he's in heaven," Boberg said.

After watching her brother suffer, she told herself that she didn't want to be around HIV/AIDS patients again. She went back to Greenville where she works at Pitt Memorial Hospital. She got a call at work from a co-worker asking if she would talk to a young woman who was pregnant and who had just found out she has HIV positive. The baby was expected to die.

She learned the pregnancy had been planned, but the father had been involved in an affair.

"What do I do first?" the young woman asked. Was she suppose to deal with the fact her baby would die? Or that she would die? Or that her marriage had been a lie?

Boberg left the hospital that day and went home where she saw a small notice about BAPNC retreats in the Biblical Recorder. The notice may have been small in the paper, but it stood out like a full-page ad to her, she said.

She has been a regular staff member since then. Her husband, Tom, is the retreat nurse. Her daughter, Angel, is in charge of crafts, and Angel's husband, Jason Webb, is also a staff nurse.

"God has just opened the door," she said.

Boberg led a devotion during the retreat in which she talked about fears - fear of spiders, snakes, animals, and losing loved ones. She quoted 1 John 14 that says, "Perfect love casts out fear."

All people have pain, she said, whether that pain is a family problem, an addiction or HIV/AIDS. "Joy does not come in the absence of pain. Pure joy comes through Christ Jesus in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our fear," she said. "Perfect love isn't on earth. It's from God."

It's that type of teaching that makes Geneva Vauters of Smithfield want to capture the atmosphere of the retreats into a Mason jar and take a whiff every so often at home.

"I need to be here because it gives me strength to go on," Vauters said. "The grace allows you to tolerate the ignorance."

She has been to 12 retreats after being diagnosed HIV positive 10 years ago - after her two sons were born. The oldest son is 15 and HIV positive. Her 13-year-old son, like her husband, is free of the disease.

Vauters believes she got the disease during a visit to a bootleg dentist in 1979 in which she had 23 teeth removed and lost a lot of blood. Although HIV positive, the disease has yet to develop into AIDS.

She lived in a dark period after learning she had the disease. "I was angry at God. I was so angry at Him. I questioned, 'Why me?' I had to come to the realization, 'Why not me?' ... I was blaming Him. Then I realized I couldn't live through it without Him." Vauters said she then took it as a compliment that God had given her so much to handle.

She now works part time as an HIV/AIDS case worker and speaks to groups about the disease.

Raddatz has a list of 25 people who have been to the retreats and have since died. Death is a scary part of the disease, Vauters said. "It's like when am I going to be on that list Eric has." Instead of focusing on those who have died, Vauters said she concentrates on the good times she had with those on the list.

"(I) hope when I'm on that list folks will feel the same about me. It's a journey," she said.

Eller has been able to plan much about his death. He knows who will be around him. And he's keeping the option that his kidneys may decide to work on their own.

"I believe in my God enough I'm going to be healed either way," Eller said. "He'll never give us more than we can handle. This has been a little more than I can handle."

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7/26/2002 12:00:00 AM by Jimmy Allen , BR Assistant Editor | with 0 comments
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