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Pastor Fred Pettison moved his congregation to midtown Phoenix after his church on the south side was destroyed by a fire bomb.
These things happen when you are gay, like Pastor Fred, and your ministry is to homosexuals and lesbians. No one was charged in the arson, one of many that remain unsolved every year.
A tall man with graying hair and beard, Pettison will be 60 next month. His shirttail hangs outside his pants, after the fashion of men who have eaten not wisely but too well. On Monday evenings, his church, Casa de Cristo, hosts a free dinner for anyone with AIDS or anyone who is HIV-positive, conditions that describe 75 percent of the members of this church.
There are no superstar basketball players like Magic Johnson at the potlucks. It's just a roomful of homosexuals facing a death sentence. One of the people who ate lasagna last week was James Buonocare, HIV-positive for nine years. Trim, bearded, he has the sort of direct gaze that reminds you of everyone's older brother.
He left a straight, married life in Illinois 12 years ago to be a homosexual in Phoenix. It has been a complicated move.
Shortly after Buonocare arrived in the Valley of the Sun, a friend of his was caught leaving a gay bar by four teenagers. Using a lead pipe, they beat the man to a pulp. The victim's eyeball was left dangling out of its socket. It took six months for the man to recover, and then he had to learn to both talk and walk again. Two metal plates replaced portions of the man's skull. Because the teenagers were minors, they escaped judgment with a wrist slap.
As Buonocare adjusted to his new life's harsh realities, he struggled with his God:
"I asked myself if I could be a Christian, because that is the highest priority in my life."
As a young man, Buonocare and his wife had run a small church in Illinois.
"I became a Christian when I was 9. No gay people were allowed in our church. Once an evangelist came to our church for a revival-type thing. During the service, the resident pastor, who had learned of the man's hidden homosexuality, got up and asked him to leave."
The Pentecostal church Buonocare was raised in is no more forgiving today.
"Two weeks ago, I went to church with my foster mother while I was visiting in Illinois. The minister got up and started preaching against homosexuals."
Buonocare confronted the cleric after the service.
"I told this man, who was black, that his calling me a homo was as degrading as if I called him a nigger. I'm glad my salvation came from Christ and not from him. And he was not going to take it away from me."
When Pastor Pettison's church was firebombed, Buonocare helped the congregation start over in a new location.
The faithful rebuilt a dilapidated shack into a home and office, and constructed from scratch a chapel and fellowship room. They also built an AIDS Memorial Prayer Garden, working under the direction of the man Fred Pettison identifies as his spouse.
The Prayer Garden is a retreat with splashing fountain, goldfish, brick floor and ceiling fans. On an adobe wall, a crucified Jesus, rescued from the burned-out church, beckons. Beneath the statue are six lights, made to resemble candles, which serve to illuminate 28 plaques bearing the names of individual AIDS victims. Purchased for $10 apiece, the markers mostly commemorate local victims, though one brass plate honors Ryan White, the little boy whose death made the national news.
The Prayer Garden is a modest affair that makes no effort to speak to the magnitude of the suffering.
We lost 50,000 countrymen in Vietnam and built, in our nation's capital, the most evocative memorial ever erected by human hands. We've buried more than 150,000 American men, women and children because of AIDS. Another 75,000 are HIV-positive. These are the people President Bush and Vice President Quayle have branded as campaign cannon fodder in the name of family values.
For a man like James Buonocare, Casa de Cristo represents a sanctuary. He and the others built their own church for the same reason legions of Christian fundamentalists have built theirs: No mainstream religion would have anything to do with them.
It is a saving grace that Buonocare has somewhere to turn.
Three years ago, when Buonocare told his former wife that he was HIV-positive, she closed the door.
"This is your reward for the way you live, and I have no sympathy for you,' she said," claims Buonocare.
It is one thing to confront the beatings, the hatred, the prejudice and the smug sanctimoniousness one-on-one, from individuals. It is another thing entirely to see these vicious sentiments given subtle expression by the White House and the leading speakers at the Republican National Convention.
"I was really disappointed by what Bush and the others told America," said Pastor Pettison. "What people don't know or understand, they fear. Bush and Quayle are playing on people's fears, preying upon the unstable elements of any population, those who always need someone to hate."
Buonocare thinks he knows why Bush was able to preside over such a cold, calculated move to make homosexuals the target of the reelection blitz. The president doesn't know any better.