About two dozen tea light candles flickered in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church on Thursday night. Each tiny flame represented a person who has battled HIV and AIDS.
As Joey Hartley walked to the table to illuminate a candle, thoughts of friends and family who are battling the disease raced through his mind.
“I was choking back tears a little bit just because of everything that was said. The people who I know who are infected, I was thinking of them,” Hartley said.
Tim Bracken sent a message of hope to those in attendance of the World AIDS Day Service. A moment of silence brought tears to several faces and looks of deep compassion on others.
“This is a huge issue,” said Bracken, pastor at First United Methodist Church, 900 Spring St. “Not one that’s easy to drive away or blame on someone else. This is a human issue.”
Bracken also encouraged others to “be the light” and find ways to help others with HIV and AIDS, which is a sentiment that touched Hartley deeply. Though there wasn’t an overwhelming crowd at the memorial service, he said just being there to support the community effort meant the world to him.
Joseph Rhymer of Bristol, along with John Shuck, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, helped organize the service. Since several World AIDS Day events were held at East Tennessee State University this week, Rhymer decided to expand awareness beyond campus. He was sure to also recognize those who work with HIV and AIDS patients.
“Being HIV positive can be kind of lonely,” he said. “Sometimes your family goes away and friends go away and partners disappear and that support network of doctors, nurses and case workers become your new family and help take care of you.”
Having the memorial service in a church was an admirable gesture, as Bracken spoke of the reputation places of worship began to receive during the AIDS epidemic.
“Church has not always been a place people with AIDS could turn to and I’m sorry for that,” Bracken said during the service.
Rhymer said that some of the people present at the Wold AIDS Day Service felt hurt by churches and tend to shy away from them.
“As a community organizer I don’t want church viewed that way,” he said.
Additionally, Bracken and others mentioned the importance of AIDS being viewed as not only a global issue, but a local one. All of the proceeds of an offering taken at the end of the service was given to the HIV Network of Johnson City, which Rhymer says provides funding for support groups and other unexpected expenses and needs of those with the disease.
Hartley said this small memorial was just a stepping stone in what he thinks will grow to include more people and more education. Plans are already in the works to make that happen, with First United Methodist Church set to continue as host.