The 'R.A.I.N. people' and AIDS

Author: George Gurtner

The 'R.A.I.N. people' and AIDS

New Orleans has one of the highest infection rates in the country. Why the Church is doing the most to help.

by George Gurtner

Dark clouds are forming, and there is talk along the narrow streets of the French Quarter of a hurricane, which is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico and is poised for New Orleans. And already the owners of the strip joints and T-shirt shops along Bourbon Street are talking about boarding up their windows.

But the men and women of another culture watch indifferently from afar as others scurry about preparing to meet nature's havoc head- on. They are the men and women of New Orleans with HIV/AIDS.

Wan and ashen, they stand in their doorways and peer from behind the closed cypress shutters of their apartments along Rue Dauphine, Rue Royal and Elysian Fields as the rest of the world weathers its tribulations.

"We're a world apart from everybody else," Louis Silcio said a few days before he lost his long battle with AIDS. "Hurricanes, wars- those are things for other people to worry about. But I'll tell you something: this is the time of AIDS. Everybody knows somebody who has AIDS-a brother, a sister, a friend."

Silcio's comments are chillingly accurate: through the spring of 1996, some 7,900 cases of AIDS had been reported in the state of Louisiana, with nearly 4,500 of those coming from the New Orleans area, ranking this city with its overwhelmingly Catholic population high on the list of infection centers throughout the nation.

Some experts say that as many as 20,000 men, women and children in Louisiana are now infected.

Serving many needs

"It's hell, man! It's hell!" Silcio said of the disease. "It's not just the sickness and waiting to die. It's my soul, man. I done things in life I ain't proud of and I know God ain't happy with. I ain't even thinkin' about how long I'm gonna live. I'm thinking about being right with God. But nobody seems to be concerned about that, and ain't much anybody's doing about it."

AIDS is now the leading cause of death among American males between the ages of 25 and 40. It also is the fifth-leading cause of death for women in that age group and for children under 15. And despite what Silcio said and sincerely believed right up to his death, somebody care.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans offers more programs for men, women and children infected with HIV/AIDS than any other governmental, private or charitable agency in the state.

Programs such as the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (R.A.I.N.) and the Transportation Assistance Program (TAP), operated by Catholic Charities of New Orleans, serve hundreds of people throughout the metro New Orleans area each day. One of those served was Jimmy Birdwell.

"I slept in an abandoned car during a tropical storm once," Birdwell recalled. "I remember curling up in the back seat. The wind was actually shaking the car. I just kept thanking God that this wasn't a full-blown hurricane. After I learned I had AIDS, my family abandoned me. I slept in a lot of abandoned cars, under houses. I caught pneumonia and nearly died."

That all ended when Birdwell moved into Kent House, a residence for men with AIDS operated by Catholic Charities. The recently opened Lasalle Apartments -another Catholic Charities residential program--offers housing for families with one or more members with AIDS.

At Kent House, Birdwell got his wish to "be among friends during my last days here, to be with people who have compassion and who really care."

Birdwell died last spring. His brother, Matthew, took his place at Kent House. They always die. And there is always somebody else standing in line to take their place.

Often clients like the Birdwell brothers will avail themselves of the TAP van for transportation to doctor's appointments, therapy or shopping. And these same clients, some of whom are too ill to care for themselves, will be visited regularly by R.A.I.N. Care Team members who handle vital everyday chores from cooking to washing clothes to simply offering companionship.

"These are good people, truly godly people," said Dolores Holmes of the Care Team members. They assisted her in caring for her 3- year-old grandson Nicholas, who succumbed to the disease last spring.

"I just cannot even think of what our lives would have been like without them. Often I was tired out from trying to hold down my job and be at the hospital with Nicholas as much as I could. I'd open the door and there would be somebody from R.A.I.N. with dinner.

"They'd say, 'Dolores, you rest this evening. We'll do the cleaning.' And they were always there for Nicholas. Sometimes I think those people from R.A.I.N. loved him as much as I did. These people don't just talk about Jesus. They live and show love just as Jesus did. And those actions speak so much louder than words."

Joyce Davis, an AIDS-infected mother of three healthy children living at a privately funded residence for people with the disease, concurred. "When you're alone late at night, and you're dying, you think about your children and what you could have done differently," she said.

"But you also think about God and what's going to happen after this life. You can go through your whole life and never once think about God. But let somebody tell you you got AIDS-that puts a whole new light on who God is and what He wants from us in our last days. I've had talks with people from R.A.I.N. They put my mind-and my soul-to rest about a lot of things."

For those men and women too ill to live alone, the diocese also provides Project Lazarus, a residence in the Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, which currently is expanding to increase its capacity to 25.

"Serving men, women and children with HIV/AIDS is a painful but incredibly fulfilling role to be asked to play," said Lois Falk, who instituted the Housing and Shelter program and now runs it. "I see women and their children who have AIDS, and I feel immediately that I'm doing the right thing, that this is where I was meant to be."

Bonnie Rawlins, service coordinator for R.A.I.N., has helped build the fledgling program into one that serves some 85 men and women and that has become a model for similar programs throughout the country.

Rawlins cried at the bedside of young Nicholas Holmes only hours before the toddler lost his battle with HIV/AIDS.

Rawlins and Falk, and other men and women of every social and economic stripe throughout the archdiocese, often work nights and weekends without extra pay. And they never hesitate to dig into their own pockets for necessities such as medicine and "little extras," such as shaving cream and toothpaste.

The workers have even helped pay for funerals. This led to the formation of a burial committee to arrange and carry out funeral services for indigent AIDS sufferers.

They always die. And there is always somebody else standing in line to take their place.

"The father dies, then the mother dies, then the 6-year-old daughter dies," Falk said of one family she took off the street. "You want to scream and go nuts, but you have to realize that you did something good-that at least they didn't die on the street."

Rawlins agreed: "You realize that you're not participating in a death; you're helping a brother or a sister to live their life to the fullest. They make their peace with God."

As director of Project Lazarus, Susan Banks spends long hours with residents, some of whom she knows will not be there when she returns the next morning. As usual, she is working late, mulling over the books, trying to figure out how to run a program that operates on a $1 million-a-year budget. She has 31 employees and more than 200 volunteers, and funds always seem precarious.

She discusses the finances of Project Lazarus with a reporter and his photographer when resident Anna Reid strolls by.

"Please, mister, take my picture, take it now," Reid asked the photographer. She is emaciated; skin hanging from bones. Her eyes are sunken, pleading.

"I want a picture to place on my coffin. I want my friends and my family to remember me as I am today, right now. Not how I may look in a few months when I die," Reid explained.

The photographer obliges.

Banks is nearly moved to tears. "Somehow, at moments like this, everything else-even the money-takes a back seat," she said. "What could be more important than that photograph, that memory?"

Gurtner writes from Metairie, La.

This article was taken from the December 15, 1996 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

Our Sunday Visitor is published weekly at a subscription rate of $36.00 per year.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN Online Services.