Jimmy Allen, the Church and AIDS

Shortly before his grandson's health forced him out of school, the Rev. Jimmy Allen dropped by for lunch with Matthew and some classmates.

The young boy talked openly about what it was like to grow up HIV positive, in a family decimated by AIDS and haunted by the fears of others. Referring to an event at church, he casually added, "That was before they kicked us out," then continued.

"I have never heard sadder words," recalled Jimmy Allen.

It could have been one of several churches, because Matthew and his family were driven out of so many as, first, his baby brother and then his mother died of AIDS. Finally, 13-year-old Matthew died on Nov. 10. After years of silence, his grandfather has written a simple, but urgent, book entitled "Burden of a Secret." What pulled the story into the news is Jimmy Allen's stature as a global church leader, former Southern Baptist Convention president and award-winning television producer.

"Our churches are big on calling people to repent," said Allen. "Now it's time for the church to repent for ... rejecting people who are hurt and in need."

The terrible timeline began when Matthew's mother contracted HIV from a blood transfusion hours before his birth. The virus went undetected until Lydia and Scott Allen had a second child, Bryan. He died of AIDS as an infant in 1986 and Lydia died in 1992. Shortly after Bryan's death, Jimmy and Wanda Allen learned that another of their sons, Skip, is gay and HIV positive. Now, his health is weakening.

Other events added to the trauma. Scott Allen was not infected but the young minister was fired by the First Christian Church (Disciples) of Colorado Springs, Colo., the day after he told the senior pastor about his family's dilemma. After moving to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, no church of any denomination would accept Matthew in Sunday school. In recent years, Scott has forsaken Christianity and embraced Taoism.

Thus, Jimmy Allen is having a "lover's quarrel" with the modern church and is on a crusade to change hearts and minds. "I wince," he writes, "every time my son Scott, wounded by his rejection by the churches, says, `Dad, it's just a business like any other business. AIDS scares people away. Churches do what pleases the most customers.' "

Allen insists that fear of AIDS has no natural "theological queue" and that he has seen graceful programs in all kinds of churches to help the sick, dying and grieving. Nevertheless, he knows that two powerful forces affecting AIDS work are stronger in his own conservative Christian circles. The two forces are sexuality and church statistics.

The Bible offers the best guidance on sexual sins, said Allen. Faced with a woman sentenced to death for adultery, Jesus silenced her accusers by asking them to recall their own sins. Then he told the woman: "Go, and sin no more." Today, this approach would be rejected by many on either side of the sexuality wars.

Conservatives find it easy to attack gays, yet most have been strangely silent on issues that affect many more church members -- premarital and extramarital sex. The vast majority of such churches don't even support ministries to help homosexuals who want to change their sexual behavior. The clear message: Go away.

On the other side, some churches led by gay-rights supporters have hesitated to back AIDS ministries, fearing revolts in pews. Meanwhile, homosexual leaders reject any approach that describes their sex lives in terms of "sin."

Allen is tired of excuses. Defending traditional teachings will not require churches to reject those with AIDS or to browbeat them, he said. Allen's gay son told ABC News that he had asked for his father's acceptance and received, instead, more of his love.

"Can we Christians overcome our prejudices? ... I pray so," writes Allen. "If we truly love the person, we can deal with his or her deviant behavior, whether it be dishonesty, drunkenness, promiscuity, drug addiction or homosexuality." Many will reject this approach, but "we will hear `Well done, good and faithful servant' from the One who counts."