In 1992, the year that the Rev. Deborah Warren and others founded Charlottes RAIN (The Regional AIDS Interfaith Network), about 33,590 U.S. residents died from AIDS. It was a disease so devastating that in many places it was treated like the plague. Those suffering from it were often shunned. So afraid of the stigma, many with the AIDS virus wouldnt even tell loved ones they had it.
Twenty years later, a lot has changed. Annual U.S. deaths of those diagnosed with AIDS have been cut nearly in half the number was 18,234 in 2009 (the latest comprehensive number available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). With successful drugs and education efforts, most people infected with HIV and AIDS are living an estimated 487,968 in 2009.
But statistics arent the true story to Warren, RAINs CEO. People are.
Theres the husband and wife he in sales and she a bank teller who discovered they were both HIV-positive and then worried that their young son could be too. He wasnt, but then their worry was how and when to tell him they were.
Then theres the Cornelius man who, Warren said, experienced the rejection and misunderstanding of his family. Through RAIN, he told his story to people of faith in the region and found the warm embrace and acceptance he needed.
It wasnt always that way. As a chaplain-intern at Carolinas Medical Center in 1992, Warren had seen patients who were in frail health and dying too often alone. It shouldnt be that way, she thought: This is what the faith community is here for.
Warren found a model for providing help in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. After a visit to Little Rock, she returned with a strategy to educate people about HIV and AIDS and to provide help and comfort to those with the disease.
How did RAIN get past the public reticence and fear? I used the sacred text to talk about care for those suffering, Warren said. And RAIN introduced to congregations people with AIDS who would tell their stories. Statistics cannot be as compelling as a persons story, she said.
In fact, those personal stories often compelled those who had remained silent about AIDS or HIV in their own families to speak up. There were people in all these congregations who had been personally impacted, Warren said. And where they could not be there for their family member, they found they could be there for somebody else.
In fact since RAIN began, more than 3,000 have trained and volunteered for its CareTeams. Over that time, RAIN has provided more than 150,000 hours of service to more than 1,100 persons with HIV and AIDS and their loved ones. It has also provided education and awareness programs to more than 50,000 people, and coordinated programs in over 100 congregations from 20 different denominations and faith traditions, in 13 N.C and S.C. counties.
With more people living with AIDS, RAIN is focused more on issues that keep people out of treatment, Warren said. Those issues are heavily linked to poverty, she said. RAIN is also focused on young people, minorities and women, the rising AIDS populations.
But the foundation of RAIN remains unchanged. Warren says RAIN has shown that we can overcome our fears and our judgment (and) can know and love people who may seem to be different.
RAIN volunteers brought love and light during a very painful period of AIDS in North Carolina, Warren said. Our experiences with HIV continue to teach us profound lessons about love, healing and community. Indeed.