Edge Publications Story by Renee Baker, August 14, 2008.
Steven Pace radiates stillness. He is one of the few who has heard the calling to walk among the suffering and bring them peace. He’s too humble to know what a great man he is. He is a shining example of how one small human being can make a huge impact on the lives of others. It is an honor to share but a small piece of his story.
Pace, age 56, is the executive director of the AIDS Interfaith Network (AIN). He is a counselor, a minister, an administrator. He walks the talk and gives you chills of spirit down your spine and tears of gold in your eyes. You will never see the face of AIDS again in the same way, after talking to Steven Pace. You can’t.
The year 1982 was a turning point for Pace. He broke up with his partner Michael, who moved to San Francisco. Pace remained living here in Dallas, but of the couple, only Pace remained alive. “He must have knew [he had AIDS],” said Pace, “before we broke up. Within a year [of his move], he was dead.” Realizing what was just said, we paused for a moment to honor the grief of those words.
It was in 1982 that we began to hear of AIDS, but Pace reminds us that it was called GRID then, for Gay Related Immune Disease. It was an unfortunate naming, as AIDS is not a gay disease, and so the stigma against gay men became a stigma against the disease, and even religion looked the other way.
The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) did not. When someone needed help, MCC was the first place they would call on. “MCC was instrumental in HIV work,” said Pace, who was a student clergy member at the time. “For many years, religion shut its doors. Everyone was struggling then. And anyone that stepped forth to help was stigmatized for helping.”
Pace said in 1985, three other churches came forth including the Methodists, Catholics and Episcopalians. But he said many lost membership because of it. “St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal was very welcoming of the gay community. But soon they were inundated with HIV cases, and membership began to dwindle.”
Blake Peery, a development manager at AIN, agrees that even today, people that help are still stigmatized. He says nonprofit workers are frequently assumed to have AIDS themselves.
To try and overcome the stigma, AIN was formed with the purpose of finding pastors willing to listen and willing to lend their name in vocal support of the seminal AIDS community. Not all pastors and church members felt they could openly participate in AIDS care, but they could do so behind the scenes as part of the Buddy Project.
The Buddy Project was originally started at the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in 1983 to foster the care of AIDS clients by “well” clients. Pace said the Buddy Project was there to help even with the most basic of care, such as bringing food to clients. It was just such a time of serving food that Pace had a spiritual calling.
While Pace interned at MCC, one of his duties was to minister to AIDS clients at Parkland Hospital. Pace said Parkland had been forced to setup an AIDS clinic and take action. For months, they stood in picket lines calling for action and compassion from the community. “There were buses arriving every day from all over [Texas] and people were dumped in Dallas,” said Pace. He says the city had a great big problem and Parkland had to do something.
Pace said the fear of contraction was huge and AIDS patients would clear an entire emergency room. When he ministered to AIDS clients in the hospital, he would find their food trays left in the hallway. It was one such time that Pace opened a room to find a young man, who looked up at him, and started to cry. “I was simply willing to bring him his food,” said Pace. Suddenly Pace, who had his own fears, was not afraid of this young man.
“I reached out and took his hand. The minute I took his hand I knew I was okay. And I knew, at that moment, that AIDS was going to be my life for awhile.” It was a deep spiritual calling and Pace, Peery and I sit with teary eyes for a moment, because we knew it was a huge turning point in Pace’s life. It was one of those moments when it all makes sense and we recognize and affirm what our gifts are.
Pace says there is something inside each and every one of us that prompts us to “seek out.” He remembers sadly a time when he recalled almost every friend he ever had, had died of AIDS. He had to do anything to help others and help others “not to get this.” He says all we really need to use our lives in the service of others.
Pace does what he does in remembrance as well. “I do this for all of them…those that died.” says Pace. Pace remembers especially his former partner Michael. He can still see a posthumous image of him, glowing, radiant and healthy – a silhouette of a strong red-headed man walking along the beaches of Galveston. It was as if his angel came to see him one day, to bless the Path that Pace is on. These are Golden moments – little winks from God – that Pace shares with tears in his eyes.
Pace says those early days were truly exhausting, and as part of his ministry, he was doing 15 to 20 memorial services per week. He felt relief when he only had one funeral service in a day. He says he was deeply embroiled in the effort, but felt there was no choice, as “no one was lining up to help”.
“There was a lot of hatred back then”, says Pace. He said when landlords found out you had HIV, you were often thrown out and all of your belongings were literally thrown onto the lawn. To make matters worse, your belongings would then be stolen.
That hatred came in picket lines too. Pace was the first “well” person to be hired to work at Ewing Center, one of the housing programs operating since 1987 as part of AIDS Services of Dallas. The Center’s existence was protested in South Dallas by angry residents holding signs that read “Keep Oak Cliff Clean and Healthy” and “No gays-No AIDS colonies.”
Pace says, “For a whole year, they tried to get Ewing House to go away.” He said they screamed at him and they threatened him. He was fearful of being killed, but continued to be available 24/7. Pace said ambulances would come by weekly and technicians would dump people on the lawn, leaving even their gloves and scrubs behind. He said, “Baylor [hospital] was the worst, but it was all of them.”
Pace worked hard to help hospitals and doctors come to terms with their fear of AIDS. He would speak regularly in training rooms and auditoriums, to as many as 300 people at a time, trying to reduce the fear of contraction. “I have breathed the same air as persons with AIDS, touched them and held them…I have had their vomit on me, their blood on me…and nothing happened.” Even with all of this, doctors didn’t like to take Pace seriously, but they could not dismiss one thing – that Pace was there and Pace was safe.
Pace said it took celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana to show that AIDS was not as contagious as it was deemed to be. Taylor founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation in 1991. Princess Di was known for publicly touching those with AIDS.
Pace says that working with HIV is not easy and it takes faith to walk this walk. “I feel as willed to this, as I did to being in the ministry”, says Pace. He also says though you don’t see the death and dying so much as we saw then, there is still a great deal of suffering. And the stigma is still here. It is not the same, but it is still here.
Pace says HIV is again on the rise. “Most students today are no longer aware of Ryan White. And HIV marketing is making kids think they can just take a pill to cure themselves.”
Both Pace and Peery encourage people to come forth and help. “However you can, use your life” says Pace. “When people let themselves get connected, they will be changed in some way,” he says. Peery says he once overlooked people with AIDS himself. “Things are pretty here in the South. I never looked at such things as the homeless before. But now, I see my clients at stoplights.” He adds, “No longer could those in need be invisible to me.”
Pace spends most of his time now performing administrative duties at the AIN center, which serves close to 2000 clients with HIV/AIDS. He enjoys spending time with Duane, his partner of over 20 years, and finding meaning and joy in the simple day to day activities of their lives.
If you would like to know more about AIDS Interfaith Network or would like to make a donation, please see their website at www.aidsinterfaithnetwork.org. Pace ministers today at the Greater Dallas MCC church and their website is http://www.mccgd.org.
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