In the early 1980s, Becky and I had only a passing acquaintance with fellow student Benjamin “Scott” Allen and his wife, Lydia.
However, we had much in common.
We were all preachers’ kids who’d met our spouses in elementary school. Scott and I both graduated from Baylor University and then entered seminary together.
Along with our studies, we took part-time pastor positions. My little church was in the rural backcountry of California. Scott was blessed with a small, but affluent church in Pacifica, Calif., southwest of San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific.
At the time, I imaged Scott as privileged pedigree. His father, Dr. Jimmy Allen, was president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Both father and son were highly intelligent, sharply handsome and natural-born leaders.
Our wives both worked in San Francisco. Becky taught school, and Lydia was a psychiatric nurse.
As newlyweds, we were already planning our family, but Lydia and Scott got there first. Her pregnancy developed normally for several months, until suddenly it didn’t.
Toxic shock sent the couple to St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room where Scott ran inside, shouting, “My wife’s in a coma — please help me!”
Over the next hour, hospital staff worked to save mother and baby. Doctors recommended a life-saving transfusion that made all the difference. Six weeks later, Scott and Lydia took baby Matthew home to recover.
I lost touch with Scott after our 1983 graduation. He took a church in Colorado Springs, and I found one in the rural California town of Brentwood.
Becky and I had our first child while the Allen family added another son, Bryan. Both mothers followed medical advice to breastfeed. Breast milk carried life to our child, but not so much for the Allen children.
For you see, Lydia got a phone call in 1985 from the blood bank that had supplied her transfusion in 1982. The caller said the blood had come from an HIV-positive male and Lydia and her family should be tested.
A week later, tests returned positive for both mother and children.
The Allen family took the stoic approach their faith recommended. Lydia resigned her nursing job rather than expose patients to unknown risks. Scott shared the news with his supervising pastor seeking support and understanding.
Scott was fired on the spot. Their HIV-infected son, Matthew, was booted from the church preschool.
In a 1993 interview, Scott told Texas Monthly, “That’s when I realized that for all their talk about unconditional love and caring, many Christians are terrified by people who face this kind of suffering.”
Scott’s parents invited the family to join them in their Fort Worth townhome. Four months after their Texas homecoming, baby Bryan, who had been born with a heart defect, died.
In their grief, Scott explored the length and breadth of their church support system, approaching five pastors about attending their church. All declined.
"My case proves that you don't have to be gay to be kicked out," Allen said in a September 1992 New York Times interview.
"I used to see bumper stickers in Dallas that said, 'You're Welcome in Our Church.' Every time I saw one I got angry and felt like suing them for false advertising."
Nevertheless, in the years that followed, Scott and Lydia turned their anger toward constructing something new in their lives: Bryan’s House.
Before Lydia died in 1992, her story inspired the still-thriving facility. According to their website (bryanshouse.org), “The house serves more than 15,000 children, easing their suffering and helping the families lead fulfilling lives.”
Matthew passed away in November 1995 at age 13.
I found Scott this past week in Lake Tahoe. He’s remarried and is using his first name, Benjamin. He speaks internationally about grief recovery and has written a well-reviewed book in 2015, “Out of the Ashes: Healing in the AfterLoss.” (www.theafterloss.com)
In YouTube videos, he expresses remarkable grace for the churches that shunned him in the 1980s.
He sees their reaction to AIDS as typical of the institutional ignorance that sometimes produces the fruits of fear.
Reach Norris Burkes at firstname.lastname@example.org, 843-608-9715 or @chaplain.