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A Life's Ministry Springs From A Dilemma Over AIDS

The Rev. Eric Williams and his colleague Jannette Berkley-Patton visited StoryCorps in Kansas City, Mo., where they discussed a funeral that shaped Williams' future. (StoryCorps)

For more than 20 years, the Rev. Eric Williams has educated people about AIDS and helped those who suffer from the disease. But the focus of Williams' ministry isn't something he could have predicted back in 1991.

In those days, Williams was a young pastor who had only recently taken charge of his own church — Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He had been ordained in 1988.

"I got a call from a local funeral home," says Williams, 56. The woman on the other end of the line told him, "I've got a really big favor that I want to ask."

The favor had to do with a young man who had just died.

"He'd been a member of the church all his life," Williams recalls. "His parents were very active in church. Mom sang in the choir. At any rate, he's 25 years old, and he died of AIDS. And he just happened to be gay."

The woman from the funeral home told Williams that when the man's "pastor found out how he died, he said, 'Well you know, I am not going to do the funeral. And it can't happen in our church.' "

Williams was asked to perform the service. And as he tells his colleague Jannette Berkley-Patton at StoryCorps, "I didn't want to do it."

"It's not appropriate for one pastor to go against what another pastor has said" in his own church, Williams recalls thinking at the time.

"And I was perfectly all right with that — until I went home and started thinking about this family.

"You know, everything good that I've been able to accomplish has started with some kind of a burden," Williams says. "And AIDS burdened me. So reluctantly, I did the funeral.

"I met the parents of this kid," he recalls. "And you know, I was used to black dads disowning their gay sons. That was the thing to do: 'My son can't be gay.'

"But not this family. This father and this mother, they celebrated his life. They embraced all of his friends."

In the years that followed, Williams became an advocate for those with HIV/AIDS, organizing prayer and information sessions. He's also urged other pastors to take up the cause and spread awareness. And it all started with that "favor," and the funeral that followed.

"You know, they taught me more about unconditional love in that little experience than any of the Sunday school books and any of the courses in seminary, or any of it," Williams says. "And that was the event that kind of rearranged my life."

World AIDS Day is Saturday. Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon with Michael Garofalo.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tomorrow is World AIDS day, and in this morning's StoryCorps, a minister tells his colleague about his first experience with the disease. It happened in 1991, when the Reverend Eric Williams was a young pastor who had recently taken charge of his own church in Kansas City, Missouri.

REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS: So I got a call from a local funeral home. She said: I've got a really big favor that I want to ask. There's a kid that died. He'd been a member of the church all his life. His parents were very active in the church, mom sang in the choir. At any rate, he's 25 years old, and he died of AIDS. And he just happened to be gay. She said, when his pastor found out how he died, he said, well, you know, I'm not going to do the funeral, and it can't happen in our church.

JANNETTE BERKLEY-PATTON: So how did you respond to that, then?

WILLIAMS: I didn't want to do it - didn't want to do it. It's not appropriate for one pastor to go against what another pastor has said, this is what I'm going to do in my congregation. And I was perfectly all right with that, until I went home and started thinking about this family. You know, everything good that I've been able to accomplish has started with some kind of a burden. And AIDS burdened me. So, reluctantly, I did the funeral.

I met the parents of this kid. And, you know, I was used to black dads disowning their gay sons. That was the thing to do. My son can't be gay - but not this family. This father, this mother, they celebrated his life. They embraced all of his friends. And, you know, they taught me more about unconditional love in that little experience than any of the Sunday school books and any of the courses in seminary, or any of it. And that was the event that kind of rearranged my life.

INSKEEP: Reverend Eric Williams in Kansas City, Missouri. He went on to devote himself to AIDS ministry and to educating people about the disease. Reverend Williams spoke with his colleague Jannette Berkley-Patton for StoryCorps, and all StoryCorps interviews are archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. The podcast is at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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