By Emily Holladay
More than 50,000 people receive a positive HIV diagnosis each year in the United States. This rise has been particularly painful in the “Bible Belt” region, where HIV is now considered a “Southern Epidemic.”
Due to the stigma of HIV and AIDS in many Christian communities, the same resources are not always available to infected patients who live in the South as in other areas of the country. Wayne Smith, a member of Central Baptist Church of Bearden, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partner church in Knoxville, Tenn., saw this lack of resources in his own community and decided to respond.
“Wayne saw an incredible need and a lack of response in the Christian community to that need,” shared Wade Bibb, pastor of Central Baptist Bearden. “He approached the previous pastor, Larry Fields, about the ministry opportunity. Larry wisely advised him to focus on the biblical imperative of caring for the sick, and the ministry took off from there.”
Smith founded Samaritan Ministry in 1996 to serve people affected by HIV in East Tennessee through direct support and education. The organization started as a ministry of Central Baptist, and many church members quickly embraced Samaritan Ministry’s commitment to providing compassionate care to those living with HIV.
Five years later, when he retired from his career in education, Smith sought to expand his base of partners for Samaritan Ministry. After attending a workshop led by Ircel Harrison, former coordinator of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (TCBF), Smith knew that CBF was just the kind of partner he was looking for.
“Both Central Baptist and CBF have given much to us with in-kind support of our organization,” Smith noted. “The role of CBF for us has been to infuse into our organizational DNA that the most important thing we can do to help others, especially the disenfranchised, is to be the presence of Christ in their lives.”
Empowered by the church community at Central Baptist and CBF to fulfill its important mission, Samaritan Ministry often finds itself serving alongside the most marginalized individuals in East Tennessee. Being the only faith-based HIV-advocacy organization in the area, they have a unique voice to bring to those suffering from the debilitating and dehumanizing disease.
“The last time that Wayne and I were in the Women’s Detention Center doing an education class with a group of women who were incarcerated for various reasons, I remember one woman asking, ‘Why do you take your time to come and talk to us?’” recalled Stacey Bristow, a volunteer tester and educator with Samaritan Ministry. “Wayne and I were able to share that we care about their health and well-being, but more importantly, that God cares for them.
“It was amazing to see the looks on their faces, because so often these women don’t receive any love or respect. We were able to commit to them that we would remember and pray for them as they learned how to make better choices in their lives moving forward.”
Smith regularly attends conferences on AIDS education as an ambassador for Samaritan Ministry. More often than not, he finds that Samaritan Ministry is the only faith-based organization represented at such events.
“Wayne has incredible stories to share about the annual AIDS conference he attends,” Bibb said. “As people see the ‘Baptist Church’ booth, some respond with anger saying, ‘Why are you here?’ until they meet and talk to him. Others will just stop, look, start crying and ask things like, ‘Where are the others?’ or ‘Why did it take so long?’”
This commitment to faith-based advocacy has led Samaritan Ministry to serve many places and people who are marginalized by the same church that worships Christ who healed the sick and reached out to the most excluded. As a representative of this healing and compassionate God, Smith and Samaritan Ministry are able to share the hope of the gospel with those who need to hear it most.
Because of this unique platform, doors continue to open for Smith to share his passion. Smith was recently invited to attend a White House Summit to address the continued spread of HIV in the South.
“The White House Summit was an effort to bring together stakeholders from all over the South to take a look at and define the new HIV epidemic,” Smith explained. “I was part of the Tennessee delegation, a group of state Department of Health experts and several leaders of AIDS service organizations from across the state. I was greatly honored to be included, and once again, we were the only faith component.”
But Smith is not satisfied for Samaritan Ministry to extend its voice only where the church isn’t normally present. As a partner with CBF and many other area churches, Smith provides education and support within Christian communities as well, helping people of faith see beyond the stigma of HIV, so they can reach out with Christ’s love.
Samaritan Ministry’s partnership with CBF is a significant example of the way CBF and its partners are forming together to respond to God’s mission in the world. Smith is a constant presence at TCBF events, as well as the annual CBF General Assembly. As part of the CBF HIV Network, he helps to plan workshops at General Assembly, and even organized a breakfast at the 2014 Assembly in Atlanta.
Smith’s relationship with CBF has allowed him to act as a resource for the Fellowship in conversations about HIV ministry. His support has helped countless CBF field personnel and partner churches respond in Christ-like ways to HIV and AIDS patients in their reach.
“I think the greatest strength of the partnership is that a local congregation, a state organization and a national entity can collaborate and form together to address human needs,” remarked Terry Maples, TCBF field coordinator. “The ministry is vitally connected to the church as congregational leaders seek to be missional and responsive to meet needs in the world.
“I sense there is significant pride about TCBF’s support of and partnership with Samaritan Ministry. As part of the larger CBF community, we desire to provide significant ministry in Jesus’ name to the marginalized of our world. That’s exactly what Samaritan Ministry does.”
TCBF, in turn, is a strong advocate for Samaritan Ministry. For this to truly be a ministry of forming together, Maples knows that such a strong partnership cannot and should not stay within the boundary of Tennessee. For that reason, he intentionally shares about Samaritan Ministry to leaders of other CBF state and regional organizations, so that they hear about the ways the ministry can resource them.
“I feel the partnership will grow stronger as we tell the story and awaken consciousness about the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS,” Maples added. “I also hope the ministry will continue to grow and flourish into the future, expanding its impact beyond Tennessee.”
Samaritan Ministry is a vital partner for CBF, not only because of the resources it provides related to HIV/AIDS support and education, but because it provides an avenue for CBF churches, partners and state and regional organizations to grow together as servants of the gospel. Through this partnership, CBF, Samaritan Ministry, Central Baptist Bearden and countless others are forming together into more caring, compassionate people, responding together to the needs of the growing number of God’s children suffering from an unforgiving virus.
“My hope is that through Samaritan Ministry, people will continue to become more educated about this virus, and the fear and misconceptions surrounding it will decrease,” Bristow said. “I am so thankful that the ministry is supported so that it can continue to respond to this epidemic with open arms and hearts, living out the model set for us by Jesus.”
Emily Holladay is Associate Pastor of Children and Families at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
CBF is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support.The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. To learn more about the Fellowship, visit www.cbf.net.