By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – Robert Nemchik is waiting for an important invitation. An invitation to educate, an invitation to provide support for Greek Orthodox Christians faced with the challenges presented by HIV-AIDS. Since early 1998, he has been involved in the AIDS awareness activities of the AIDS Ministry of the San Francisco Metropolis. Along with the Rev. Fr. Michael Rymer, he would like to share knowledge gained through his experience with AIDS and the issues related to the Orthodox Christian faith that it raised. You see, the AIDS virus presented Bob with a personal struggle in life and in faith. It led to the death of his own son.
But despite the designation of the 2nd Sunday in October as AIDS Awareness Sunday in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, invitations for Mr. Nemchik and Fr. Rymer to visit parishes and give educational seminars on topics related to AIDS and Orthodoxy have not been forthcoming outside their own state of California, where they have given presentations to Philoptochos chapters and area clergy-laity meetings.
Mr. Nemchik believes that this is largely an issue of people having too much pride to admit that AIDS exists in the Greek Orthodox community. As a result, he said, “there are kids with AIDS who die alone in motel rooms.”
“I want other parents whose children have AIDS to know how fortunate I think I was to be able to be with my son as he was dying from this virus,” he said. “Too many kids who have been shunned by their parents, families and one-time friends are dying of this disease in motel rooms with no one around them. People don’t know what they are missing when they turn their backs on loved ones who have AIDS.”
Because Bob came to terms with his son’s illness, he was able to develop a different kind of relationship with him, “not as father and son,” but as adults who were dealing with the issues of death and dying and what that meant for them both.
He also wants to educate people about the issue of “Holy Communion in the Age of AIDS.” There are, he said, “people who do not participate in this sacrament because of their fear of contracting the AIDS virus.
“We know that after a parish priest gives Holy Communion to the faithful, he drinks whatever remains in the cup. Despite this, no priest has contracted the AIDS virus,” Bob noted.
Bob’s concern about creating an atmosphere of compassion and knowledge surrounding AIDS issues extends to the clergy of the archdiocese, and he made a special trip to Holy Cross Seminary to get the message to seminarians before they are assigned to a parish.
“Fr. Rymer and I want them to know that if they can’t or don’t want to deal with AIDS victims or their families, they can call upon us to get involved with them,” he said, adding that he has encountered resistance to his efforts.
“Some people look at the AIDS sign we display at Clergy-Laity Congresses, and you can tell they can’t get away from it fast enough. Progress in getting the message out has been slow; but we are constantly out there and trying to make people aware of the Orthodox perspective: ‘We despise the sin but love the sinner.’”
Noting that the Metropolis of Chicago’s AIDS Task Force predates the establishment of the San Francisco AIDS Ministry, Bob expressed his desire to see an archdiocese-based AIDS ministry guiding and supporting similar efforts by metropolises nationwide.
The San Francisco Metropolis AIDS Ministry’s educational efforts include brochures about AIDS-related issues; a manual encompassing such topics as how start a local AIDS ministry, how to help people affected by the AIDS virus and their families, the Orthodox perspective on HIV-AIDS, and volunteer guidelines, as well as information about the AIDS virus; and a Web site, www.aidsministry.org.
The board of the San Francisco ministry also hopes to raise enough funds to create a film featuring a roundtable discussion by clergy and medical professionals. It would augment a film available through the Chicago metropolis, which, with great emotional impact , traces the life of a son lost to AIDS from the early years of his life through the course of his battle with AIDS.
Bob would also like to see AIDS become a part of a seminarian’s education. Once sufficient funds become available, he proposes making scholarships available for seminarians who write an essay on AIDS, deliver the paper in a presentation, and publish it.
Contributions to the ministry should be made out to the Greek Orthodox Diocese of San Francisco HIV/AIDS Ministry and sent to Mr. Robert Nemchik, Executive Director, 2031 Pioneer Court, Suite 1, San Mateo, CA 94403.