By Rebecca Fiedler
Through the Red Door Project, Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church is attempting to help those who are HIV positive by providing services to people suffering from the disease.
The church has a food and hygiene pantry offered for HIV positive individuals, who can use its resources once a month. The church also delivers supplies to people’s homes if there is a transportation issue.
Individuals must show proof of HIV by providing evidence such as a doctor’s note, referral from the McLennan County Health Department or a medication bottle or prescription, said the Rev. Charley Garrison, the church’s pastor.
It can be difficult for those suffering with HIV to afford food and other groceries, Garrison said. There are many competing costs in their lives.
Garrison said people referred by the health department have their medicine already covered by the state. He also said HIV is a disease that can be especially difficult for those who are economically strained.
“People who are just trying to get by already lots of times are the ones who end up HIV positive,” Garrison said. “And so if they’re already having problems making house payments or paying utilities or something like that, lots of times putting food on the table is a challenge, too.”
The Red Door Project’s services have neither grown or shrunk over the years, Garrison said. The church sees about 40 people a month at the pantry, but it’s not always the same people, he said. The church has around 75-90 people on file for its Red Door Project pantry services, Garrison said.
“Surprisingly to me, a lot of them only come in as they need the food,” he said. “They’re not taking advantage of the system.”
Garrison said the church’s pantry is offered as a supplement to other charitable pantries in the city. Garrison said he believes Waco is lacking in resources for those who are HIV positive.
Two other local organizations offer funding either directly or indirectly to those suffering with HIV, Garrison said, but there are no other pantries specific for HIV sufferers in McLennan County besides the Central Texas Metropolitan Church. There are no other HIV support groups in Waco, either, he said.
The Red Door Project also includes support groups: one for HIV positive women, the other for both men and women suffering from HIV, as well as their friends and families.
A dozen people come to the group catering to multiple people, and the women’s group has three women in attendance, Garrison said. He said he attributes the low attendance to the stigma against HIV sufferers.
“People are in denial and they don’t want to be talking about how they’re feeling about the disease or how to deal with it,” Garrison said. “It’s a lot easier lots of times to pretend that it’s not a part of their lives.”
Penny Wood, registered nurse and case manager at Providence Health Center, said she agrees that many people avoid HIV testing. Some act as if they ignore the risk they may have HIV, they won’t have it, she said. Wood said that stigmas against those with HIV are growing.
“I think some people are worried about people finding out and being stereotyped,” Wood said. “I think that’s growing a little bit. In the beginning blood samples weren’t being tested, so people were contracting it by getting blood transfusions and things like that, and now it is pretty much isolated to the realm of being associated with homosexual behavior.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states HIV is a virus that can be transmitted through injection or sexual intercourse.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Wood said HIV sufferers will be on medications as long as they live.
“They will be on antivirals their whole life, until they find a cure or something for the virus,” she said.
Garrison said living with HIV can be difficult for individuals in Waco in particular for other reasons, too.
“Especially in Waco, it’s the stigma that can just absolutely devastate the person,” he said. “Waco is an area with a strong Baptist influence, conservative politics. You’ve got that going on, and that leads to stigma. They’re afraid to come out about their HIV status. Lots of times they’re even afraid to even be tested because of the stigma that goes with it.”
Garrison said the Red Door Project started in the church in 2006. HIV has been a part of Garrison’s life for a long time, he said, when the disease first came about.
The Central Texas Metropolitan church also reaches out specifically to the LGBT community, the church’s website states.
“I was around in the very beginning of the pandemic, and so it devastated the LGBT community initially. I think that the community has continued to sort of carry the banner for people with HIV, even after it’s moved into other populations,” Garrison said.
Garrison said he came to Waco in 1999.
In 2006 a couple at church asked for help with groceries because of their expenses with HIV medications. The Central Texas Metropolitan Church helped tend to the couple’s needs, and the Red Door Project was born from that, Garrison said.
“That’s what churches do,” he said. “It occurred to me that if we could do it for them, maybe we could get this going for the community at large.”
Wood said McLennan County does have HIV/AIDS services, to whom both local emergency rooms refer those who are uninsured.
The emergency room at Providence typically doesn’t test for HIV because of the type of testing required, Wood said, which is a send-out test without immediate results.
Providence also refers HIV patients to the Waco Infectious Disease Association, and tries to get HIV sufferers in touch with social workers who can help them with the payment for their medications, Wood said. She also said a local Baptist organization and Caritas can help with medications.
“The antivirals are very expensive,” Wood said.
Wood said she believes the resources in Waco for those with HIV are sufficient.
“Anyone I’ve ever referred to the McLennan County Health Department or to the Infectious Disease doctors – no one’s ever returned and said they weren’t able to get follow-up,” Wood said.
Garrison said it’s very hard to determine how much of the population suffers from HIV. People seek many different avenues of treatment, and many people are silent and seek no treatment.
What Garrison hears from the people in the support groups is that they believe they are like everyone else, he said.
“They say, ‘I’m not somebody that you’re going to get the disease from by touching me, or eating off of a plate after me,’” Garrison said. “There’s still a lot of fear and lack of education in this city, and so if people could educate themselves better about how it’s transmitted, I think they would have more of a tendency to have compassion towards people who are positive.”