The 'R.A.I.N. people' and AIDS
New Orleans has one of the highest infection rates in the country.
Why the Church is doing the most to help.
by George Gurtner
Dark clouds are forming, and there is talk along the narrow
streets of the French Quarter of a hurricane, which is brewing in
the Gulf of Mexico and is poised for New Orleans. And already the
owners of the strip joints and T-shirt shops along Bourbon Street
are talking about boarding up their windows.
But the men and women of another culture watch indifferently from
afar as others scurry about preparing to meet nature's havoc head-
on. They are the men and women of New Orleans with HIV/AIDS.
Wan and ashen, they stand in their doorways and peer from behind
the closed cypress shutters of their apartments along Rue
Dauphine, Rue Royal and Elysian Fields as the rest of the world
weathers its tribulations.
"We're a world apart from everybody else," Louis Silcio said a few
days before he lost his long battle with AIDS. "Hurricanes, wars-
those are things for other people to worry about. But I'll tell
you something: this is the time of AIDS. Everybody knows somebody
who has AIDS-a brother, a sister, a friend."
Silcio's comments are chillingly accurate: through the spring of
1996, some 7,900 cases of AIDS had been reported in the state of
Louisiana, with nearly 4,500 of those coming from the New Orleans
area, ranking this city with its overwhelmingly Catholic
population high on the list of infection centers throughout the
Some experts say that as many as 20,000 men, women and children in
Louisiana are now infected.
Serving many needs
"It's hell, man! It's hell!" Silcio said of the disease. "It's not
just the sickness and waiting to die. It's my soul, man. I done
things in life I ain't proud of and I know God ain't happy with. I
ain't even thinkin' about how long I'm gonna live. I'm thinking
about being right with God. But nobody seems to be concerned about
that, and ain't much anybody's doing about it."
AIDS is now the leading cause of death among American males
between the ages of 25 and 40. It also is the fifth-leading cause
of death for women in that age group and for children under 15.
And despite what Silcio said and sincerely believed right up to
his death, somebody care.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans offers more programs for men, women
and children infected with HIV/AIDS than any other governmental,
private or charitable agency in the state.
Programs such as the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (R.A.I.N.)
and the Transportation Assistance Program (TAP), operated by
Catholic Charities of New Orleans, serve hundreds of people
throughout the metro New Orleans area each day. One of those
served was Jimmy Birdwell.
"I slept in an abandoned car during a tropical storm once,"
Birdwell recalled. "I remember curling up in the back seat. The
wind was actually shaking the car. I just kept thanking God that
this wasn't a full-blown hurricane. After I learned I had AIDS, my
family abandoned me. I slept in a lot of abandoned cars, under
houses. I caught pneumonia and nearly died."
That all ended when Birdwell moved into Kent House, a residence
for men with AIDS operated by Catholic Charities. The recently
opened Lasalle Apartments -another Catholic Charities residential
program--offers housing for families with one or more members with
At Kent House, Birdwell got his wish to "be among friends during
my last days here, to be with people who have compassion and who
Birdwell died last spring. His brother, Matthew, took his place at
Kent House. They always die. And there is always somebody else
standing in line to take their place.
Often clients like the Birdwell brothers will avail themselves of
the TAP van for transportation to doctor's appointments, therapy
or shopping. And these same clients, some of whom are too ill to
care for themselves, will be visited regularly by R.A.I.N. Care
Team members who handle vital everyday chores from cooking to
washing clothes to simply offering companionship.
"These are good people, truly godly people," said Dolores Holmes
of the Care Team members. They assisted her in caring for her 3-
year-old grandson Nicholas, who succumbed to the disease last
"I just cannot even think of what our lives would have been like
without them. Often I was tired out from trying to hold down my
job and be at the hospital with Nicholas as much as I could. I'd
open the door and there would be somebody from R.A.I.N. with
"They'd say, 'Dolores, you rest this evening. We'll do the
cleaning.' And they were always there for Nicholas. Sometimes I
think those people from R.A.I.N. loved him as much as I did. These
people don't just talk about Jesus. They live and show love just
as Jesus did. And those actions speak so much louder than words."
Joyce Davis, an AIDS-infected mother of three healthy children
living at a privately funded residence for people with the
disease, concurred. "When you're alone late at night, and you're
dying, you think about your children and what you could have done
differently," she said.
"But you also think about God and what's going to happen after
this life. You can go through your whole life and never once think
about God. But let somebody tell you you got AIDS-that puts a
whole new light on who God is and what He wants from us in our
last days. I've had talks with people from R.A.I.N. They put my
mind-and my soul-to rest about a lot of things."
For those men and women too ill to live alone, the diocese also
provides Project Lazarus, a residence in the Faubourg Marigny, a
neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, which currently is
expanding to increase its capacity to 25.
"Serving men, women and children with HIV/AIDS is a painful but
incredibly fulfilling role to be asked to play," said Lois Falk,
who instituted the Housing and Shelter program and now runs it. "I
see women and their children who have AIDS, and I feel immediately
that I'm doing the right thing, that this is where I was meant to
Bonnie Rawlins, service coordinator for R.A.I.N., has helped build
the fledgling program into one that serves some 85 men and women
and that has become a model for similar programs throughout the
Rawlins cried at the bedside of young Nicholas Holmes only hours
before the toddler lost his battle with HIV/AIDS.
Rawlins and Falk, and other men and women of every social and
economic stripe throughout the archdiocese, often work nights and
weekends without extra pay. And they never hesitate to dig into
their own pockets for necessities such as medicine and "little
extras," such as shaving cream and toothpaste.
The workers have even helped pay for funerals. This led to the
formation of a burial committee to arrange and carry out funeral
services for indigent AIDS sufferers.
They always die. And there is always somebody else standing in
line to take their place.
"The father dies, then the mother dies, then the 6-year-old
daughter dies," Falk said of one family she took off the street.
"You want to scream and go nuts, but you have to realize that you
did something good-that at least they didn't die on the street."
Rawlins agreed: "You realize that you're not participating in a
death; you're helping a brother or a sister to live their life to
the fullest. They make their peace with God."
As director of Project Lazarus, Susan Banks spends long hours with
residents, some of whom she knows will not be there when she
returns the next morning. As usual, she is working late, mulling
over the books, trying to figure out how to run a program that
operates on a $1 million-a-year budget. She has 31 employees and
more than 200 volunteers, and funds always seem precarious.
She discusses the finances of Project Lazarus with a reporter and
his photographer when resident Anna Reid strolls by.
"Please, mister, take my picture, take it now," Reid asked the
photographer. She is emaciated; skin hanging from bones. Her eyes
are sunken, pleading.
"I want a picture to place on my coffin. I want my friends and my
family to remember me as I am today, right now. Not how I may look
in a few months when I die," Reid explained.
The photographer obliges.
Banks is nearly moved to tears. "Somehow, at moments like this,
everything else-even the money-takes a back seat," she said. "What
could be more important than that photograph, that memory?"
Gurtner writes from Metairie, La.
This article was taken from the December 15, 1996 issue of Our
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