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.

"Bush needs to put some human faces on the AIDS crisis," Buonocare said. "Maybe if he held someone he knew and loved as they took their last breath, it would help." Since the AIDS plague began killing homosexuals, and occasionally others, in this country, Buonocare has personally nursed three men who died. But that does not begin to let you understand the path taken by this 38-year-old man. Understanding starts with Buonocare's lover.

"Six years ago yesterday, I lost Jeff. I laid in bed with him as he died. That was the beginning.

"When I first came to Phoenix, I had a circle of 10 to 12 men, and we were inseparable. We went out to dinner all the time. We did everything together. I'm the only one left. All my real close friends have died."
In fact, Buonocare has a scrapbook in which he pastes up the obituaries of his friends. There are two volumes of this diary. Following the meal at Casa de Cristo, about 15 people, homosexuals and lesbians, adjourned to the chapel.

We were given the hymnal number for "Amazing Grace." As I reached for the songbook, I also picked up a small hand fan. On one side of the fan was an illustration of the Last Supper; on the other side was a large advertisement for the Universal Memorial Center Funeral Home.

Pastor Pettison offered a tender bit of preaching.
He reminded us that God does not bestow guilt, but that religions bestow guilt.
The pastor told the story about the time Gandhi read the teachings of Jesus Christ and was so impressed that he sought out a Christian church in India. Gandhi was barred at the door because he was of the wrong caste.

Gandhi's response, as recalled by Pettison: "If it weren't for the Christians, I'd be a Christian."

"Well," said Pastor Pettison, smiling, "I'm a Christian in spite of the Christians."
Afterward, Pastor Pettison was joined at the altar by the lesbian minister, Sharon Busch, who shares his duties. People were invited to come forward to discuss in private whatever worries might weigh upon their shoulders.

For the next 20 minutes, people unburdened their hearts of troubles we all recognize, as well as miseries that only true outcasts endure. Off to the side, a black, albino lesbian, cross-eyed and legally blind and wearing a blond wig, played a guitar and sang with a voice that was sweetness itself upon the ears:

Oh, how He loves you and me
Oh, how He loves you and me
God is the one, He gave us His Son
Oh, how He loves you and me

On the way out, I picked up a flier announcing a church program for the children in the neighborhood. The weekly gatherings promise "singing, Bible stories, a puppet show, cartoons, movies and free food."

This is, of course, the nightmare of many Americans, not just fundamentalist Christian Republicans: homosexuals mixing with young children.

Pastor Pettison was patient in his response.
Many of the lesbians and homosexuals in his church are parents, and a score of their children regularly attend service, he said. The kids need Christian outlets like summer Bible school. Neighborhood children also need the word of Jesus.

"I'm a person who is not paranoid," he explained. "The neighborhood accepts us. The meetings with the kids are held outdoors, where parents can watch or join in.

"There is a segment of the heterosexual and homosexual population who are into children. We see that as an illness or a sickness. We will fight that."
Pettison's words are reasonable, but this is not about reason. When Woody Allen is accused of molesting his child, heterosexuals do not stand indicted as a group. But when a homosexual preys upon a child, all homosexuals are condemned.

By starting an outreach program to neighborhood children, Pastor Pettison is traversing emotional badlands.

He doesn't see it that way.
"I am a homosexual, and I had no more choice about that than I did the color of my eyes. You know, the church used to frown on people who were left-handed. It was considered the work of the devil. Think of homosexuality as the left-handed aspect of sexuality. I am not out to recruit anyone. We are not out to recruit children."
If Pastor Pettison is calm in the face of homophobia, it is because he learned early to deal with hysteria.

In the 1950s, when he was still straight, still a Baptist minister, the white Pettison had a church on Long Island that was overwhelmingly black. Bigots from both races threatened to kill him.

Today, Pastor Pettison once again is confronting common prejudices. He and his congregation refuse to be typecast as child molesters.

James Buonocare is one of the parents in Pastor Pettison's congregation.
He was not allowed to see his children for eight years after he told his ex-wife that he was gay.

"'Either you or some of your faggot friends will end up molesting the kids' is how she put it," said Buonocare.

Today, both of Buonocare's children know he is HIV-positive, and he has been allowed to reestablish ties with them. Though he talks of bigotry, the deaths of his friends, his own stark mortality, he constantly returns to the subject of his children.

"My son probably took the news of my illness the worst. He didn't know a lot, and asked what we had to do to keep me alive. My daughter chooses not to deal with it."
Buonocare is grateful for what blessings he does enjoy. Nor do members of his church wear bitterness upon their sleeves.

During the potluck dinner at Casa de Cristo, there was a startling absence of anger about the homophobia fanned at the Republican convention. When the speakers began the campaign of cruelty, this group of gay men and women flipped the channel, turned off the set or simply turned its back on the hatred. After a lifetime of guilt, ridicule and violence, these people are facing death; George Bush and Dan Quayle could not possibly be any more trivial.

But if there was not a sense of outrage, there was awareness that President Bush has refused to enact a single recommendation of his own AIDS commission.

A lifelong Republican, James Buonocare has changed his party affiliation for this election. "I don't care about funding for satellites in space," said Buonocare. "I want to live to see my grandchildren."

The day after the potluck dinner, I drove out to Buonocare's retail clothing store. Pictures of his teenagers hang next to a motto: "What you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God."

I asked to see the scrapbook Buonocare mentioned when we first met. I did not think that he'd made up the story about the obituaries, but neither could I comprehend that any man could know so much death.

He keeps this terrible record above his desk.
In the front of his book, there is a note from a dead man.
"Oh, James, my love and concern for you is so great. We all try so hard and life just simply gets tougher as we try harder."
Buonocare drifted back to memories of the death of his lover.
"Jeff was one of the first to die," said Buonocare. "It wasn't long after Rock Hudson, and no one knew very much. The nurses did not want to come into the room. A lot has changed since then. But at the time, I washed him, got him into the shower, changed him. As he died, I stayed with him and fed him."
Page after page of obituaries. It is too much to look at, 42 names in all, and who knows how many more will be added to the book before it is over.

"I could die at any time, and I'm not even 40," said Buonocare. "I don't know how to deal with that. I have an older couple that I speak with, friends. They're both in their 80s, and have been married for 60 years. I asked them how they face the prospect of dying at any moment. They said they were ready, that they'd been teenagers, raised kids, seen their grandkids. They knew death was coming. It is okay. They said my problem was I went from being a kid to facing death."
How does Buonocare replace the friends he's buried?
The answer is that he does not.

James Buonocare has become, at the age of 38, a very old man whose contemporaries have all departed.

"I no longer have people that I can just call up and say, 'Let's go get dinner or go dancing.' Everyone's dead. I have associates, but all my friends are dead."


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey