Before we were called “He Intends Victory” (HIV), we began as a Support Group called, “A Christians Response to HIV/AIDS!” That was in October of 1989.
One Sunday in April, two men from the Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM), where I was serving on the Board of Directors, came to me after Church. Joni and I had started The Village Church of Irvine in 1982 after serving the Lord near Palm Springs for the 10 years before that and our church in Irvine was growing and a joy. I’ve always been involved with helping the homeless so serving through the OCRM was a natural fit for me. A good number of the men in their New Life program attended church on Sundays and this week John Wilson and Joe Cumba met me after and said, “Pastor Bruce, we had to be tested for our program with the Mission two weeks ago and we both came up HIV+ from our drug days. We don’t know what to do. We attended a support group in Irvine but it sure wasn’t Christian group and we need to meet with Christians! Could you help us?” I responded with what all pastor’s say, “Let’s pray about it!” But I did pray about it and the following Sunday I found them both, pulled them aside and said, “I did pray about it guys and I think it might be a good idea to meet weekly.” And so we did. John and Joe were not the first people I met with HIV.
I first met Kurt in early 1985. His sister and brother-in-law, Frank and Maxine, were members of our church and he visited one Sunday and that day, he gave his life to Jesus. But living in Los Angeles was too difficult to come every Sunday the 55 miles to Irvine each way so Kurt got involved in a church in LA. We kept in touch some and I was blessed to see him growing in the Lord. One afternoon, in early 1986 Kurt called and asked if I would “officiate” at his summer wedding. He had met a Christian woman and they wanted a garden wedding at his sister’s home and wanted me to be a part of it. Of course, I said “yes”. What I didn’t know was that the night before the wedding, Kurt had received a telephone call from his old girlfriend. She told him that he had “better not be getting married” and that she had just tested positive for HIV. He hung up and thought “she is just being jealous and vindictive!” She wasn’t. Eleven months later, Maxine called me and said,
“Bruce, can you go visit Kurt? He’s in the hospital.”
“What?” I said, “why is he in the hospital?”
“He has AIDS!” I told her of course I would go visit him but when I got to the University of California Irvine Medical Center and went up toward his room, I was shocked at what I saw. The nurses were talking and laughing as they sat on the right side of this large room. It had numerous glass enclosed rooms. They didn’t even notice me. But I could see Kurt in a one of those small glass-enclosed rooms so I just started over to his him. As I walked into his room, I was even more shocked. Kurt’s arms and legs were strapped to the bed with his body moving in contortions. His eyes were rolling and there was saliva running down his cheek. I didn’t realize that the virus had gone to his brain and was destroying his nervous system. But I did notice that the IV had come out of his arm and there was blood down his arm and on the bed. In that instant, my heart broke for him. I had heard a lot about AIDS even telling Joni “I am sick and tired of hearing about AIDS on the news!” But here in front of me was someone with AIDS…someone I knew. When AIDS went from a statistic or a number of cases or someone somewhere else, I didn’t seem to care. But when there in front of me was Kurt, my heart broke but for not just for him but everyone who was or would be HIV+. This virus was deadly and I was watching it right before my eyes.
I saw some Kleenex and immediately started wiping up the blood off of Kurt’s arm. As I did one of the nurse’s came into the room with a mask, a gown, and gloves on. This was at time when there were a lot of uncertainties about how this virus was passed on or how contagious it really was. She was angry that I was in there with “no protection” and “touching” the blood that had HIV in it. And she told me so.
After I put on gloves, and a mask, and a gown, she let me back in the room. Kurt’s arm was clean as was the bed so I sat down next to his constantly moving body. With the way he was contorting and the fact that he could not even make eye contact, I wondered if he could even hear me if I spoke to him.
“Hi Kurt, It’s Bruce. I can see this is very difficult for you and I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but if you can, blink your eyes one time!” He did it!! Then I thought “maybe he just blinked”. So, I asked him again and he did it again.
“Great. Blink your eyes once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’”, and for the next 20 minutes that was how we ‘talked’. Finally, I knew I had to be honest with Kurt and I knew I had to ask him this one question,
“Kurt, are you ready to go be with Jesus because you are not going to come out of this hospital alive?”
Gratefully he blinked his eyes one time, “Yes, he was ready to die!” I prayed for Kurt and shortly after that Kurt ‘moved’ to a far better place without tears and pain and sickness, he moved to Heaven. His funeral was just a few people. His wife did not come. She was in shock and just couldn’t face anyone. Kurt’s former girlfriend wasn’t jealous. She was trying to warn him to be careful. Sadly, Kurt had infected his young wife.
Two months before Kurt’s death in June of 1988 , I heard someone knock on my office door. It was Kevin, the son of a couple who also were members of The Village Church. They had both been raised in a denominational church but had never really “met” Jesus. But once they did, wow, were they excited about Jesus. I remember Jack would end our weekly Men’s Bible Study prayer time with “Yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, God!” He was joy and with Jack, joy was always present. I knew Kevin was nice young man, maybe 21 or 22. His parents had told me that he was not a believer so I was surprised to see him at my door.
“Do you have a few minutes? I need your help with something,” Kevin said.
“Of course,” I said, “Come right in”. After some pleasantries, Kevin blurted out, “I live in Hollywood and work in the movie industry. But I have living in a homosexual relationship with a man who just recently died of AIDS. I had his funeral last week and I don’t know how to tell my parents that I am HIV+!” Wow, I was again shocked. Not because Kevin was gay, that’s for a different ministry, but by the fact that he looked so healthy! He was HIV+ yet there was no way to tell that. But wonderfully, that day, Kevin gave his life to Jesus! Two months later, in my office with his parents, he told them. They did what he thought they would not, they jumped up and hugged him and wept with him. They did that because they loved him. Kevin lived faithfully to the Lord for the next 12 years when he ‘moved’ to Heaven.
For over 30 years I did a weekly Sunday morning radio program playing Christian music and teaching from the Bible. So, in 1989, when John and Joe began I first support group, I knew what to do to invite people of Orange County and Southern California to “A Christian Response to HIV/AIDS”. At the end of my weekly program I said,
“If any of you are HIV+ or know someone who is, please call me and I will personally welcome you or them to our group meeting every Tuesday night at 6pm. We even have pizza. You don’t have to be a Christian to come but you do have to be HIV+, but we are so Jesus will play an important part of our group.” And people started to call.
One of the first to call was Herb Hall. At 6 feet 4 inches, a babyface, a pleasant guy, totally dedicated to his mother and sisters, Herb towered over almost everyone. A security guard with a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology, His slight southern accent (southern Kansas that is) was enjoyable and Herb was likeable, friendly, and cantankerous! What you could not see was a tortured young man who lived a “double” life for over 10 years. His parents, his sisters, his co-workers, his friends had no idea that after church, or after work, or any other time Herb could sneak over to an Adult Bookstore, he would rendezvous with man or two. Every week for 10 years. But after living this kind of frustrating and confusing life, Herb truly committed his life to Jesus and he was set free. He was excited and determined to find a God given mate for life.
He met a young Christian woman, Susan, and eventually decided she was the ‘one’. But he thought, “after the way I’ve lived and even though my past is behind me, I’d better be tested for HIV”. Not only was Herb HIV+, the doctor told him had ‘full-blown’ AIDS and probably would only live another year. That was not uncommon in 1989 for people confronted with the AIDS virus. Shocked and totally devastated, confused and feeling worthless, Herb decided he would just kill himself and hoped that God would be merciful. He called his sister to say ‘good bye’… Crying on the phone he told her his plan and that she could not stop him. “Please tell Mom that I love her and you and the others. But I just can’t live with this!.” It was one thing to be a “former homosexual” and no one knew about it. It was another thing altogether to have AIDS and everyone wondering, “how did you get AIDS?”
As Herb hung up the pay phone (in the 1980’s we had landline phones available at stores and other place which we could use coins and make phone calls), a man came up to the other phone next to his.
“Are you alright, mister?” the guy asked.
“No, I just heard some devastating news and I don’t think life is worth living anymore.”.
The young man said, “I can only tell you from my experience but Jesus Christ has a plan for you life and that is not a part of it! Let me pray for you.”
Herb later said many times, “It was a miracle. That devastation lifted and was replaced with a desire to honor the Lord and for people to come to know Jesus.” Later that morning when Herb saw his much-relieved sister, she told him that she had just heard an invitation on the radio from Pastor Bruce Sonnenberg in Irvine for an HIV/AIDS Support Group for Christians, “A Christian Response to HIV/AIDS”! She had written the phone number down and gave it to Herb.
I remember the phone call. Although Herb knew he had heard from God and that he would be okay, he was still hurting and yet excited that God really had a plan for his life. He told me a little about the journey that brought him to the phone call and said he wanted to do something for others facing HIV. I told him that next Tuesday night at 6pm we would have our first meeting. I also had decided, because of confidentiality issues, that only those living with HIV/AIDS would be allowed to attend. I would be the only non-HIV+ person attending (and continued that for the first 5 years). After that phone call, I just sat back and cried (if you know me, you will believe that). God had confirmed to me that I was doing what He wanted me to do.
Herb came, John Wilson came, Joe Cumba came and we all laughed and cried and celebrated the forgiveness and the love of Jesus. I wasn’t sure how the “former drug addicts” and the “former homosexual” would get along but it all made no difference to any of us. Two weeks later, Herb sent me a thank you card:
“Dear Brother Bruce,
The past two weeks the Lord has really blessed my life through the Support Group. I praise and thank God that he laid this ministry on my heart. My sole desire is to see people come to know Jesus as their personal Savior and for us who already know Him, to grow stronger in Him. Thank you for caring for me and the love you have already shown. I believe and trust God that He is going to do great things in this Support Group. You’re a great brother in the Lord,
Herbert R. Hall”
I met with Herb once a week for over a year. We worked through his anger and pain and confusion. Mostly he just needed a friend to talk and pray. After 6 weeks or so, he knew he had to tell Susan that although he loved her, the Lord had someone else for her and that he felt God had told him he would never marry. And he never did. But as he grew stronger in the Lord, so did his desire to share Jesus.
About two months later, I got a call from a young woman who went to Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. I had a special place in my heart for Calvary Chapel having been their first Youth Minister from 1970 to 1972. So, when Tamara told me that she had “heard me on the radio and wondered if she could come to the group I was overjoyed”.
Tamara Brown was married to Gary and had a 6 year old son, Joshua.