SAN FRANCISCO — They were walking corpses, the once-beautiful men who dragged themselves to pray at the Metropolitan Community Church each Sunday. Too sick to sit, many would drape their gaunt, lesion-covered bodies across the pews.
Others wheeled themselves in with oxygen tanks and IV drips to ease their pain. And during each sermon, the Rev. Jim Mitulski would survey his Castro District congregation, wondering whom he’d bury next. In all, he presided over about 500 funerals of AIDS victims.
Now battling his own HIV infection, Mitulski understands better than most how the virus could again be on the rise. He hopes his life can serve as scripture to others trying to prevent new infections.
But, he said, preaching alone won’t work.
“I can summarize it in three words: People make mistakes. You can use that as an insight to beat people up with it or to work with them on it,” he said. “Education alone does not adequately prevent people from engaging in behaviors that are self-destructive.”
Mitulski, who now works for the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, said Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, is a good time to reflect on a past filled with death, and to hope that another generation won’t see such suffering.
But signs aren’t encouraging. In San Francisco, the rate of HIV infection has more than doubled among the city’s gay men in the past four years.
Since the discovery of AIDS in 1981, the virus has killed 22 million people worldwide and left another 36 million facing a death sentence. About 18,000 deaths have occurred in San Francisco.
Many were Mitulski’s church members, colleagues and friends.
“Saturday, all day, was funerals. That’s what we did, and Sunday was church all day. It was the same people,” he said.
Mitulski, 43, said he got his first call from God in 1981 as minister of the gay Metropolitan Community Church in New York’s Greenwich Village. He held the hands of some of the nation’s first dying AIDS patients there.
Fresh out of Columbia University with only an undergraduate degree in religion, the 23-year-old from Royal Oak, Mich., prayed for mercy even before there was a name attached to the mysterious illness striking down members of his nondenominational congregation.
He remembers being required to wear gloves and a gown before entering hospital rooms where food trays were left on the floor outside rooms. Signs with bold letters warned nurses of the deadly virus lurking inside.
In the earliest years of the epidemic, people were dying before they knew they had AIDS, Mitulski said. “There wasn’t a lot of time for reflection, and there wasn’t a way to identify who had HIV and who didn’t. They weren’t even sure how it was transmitted.”
After five years of watching victims waste away, covered by the cancerous purple blotches commonly associated with the disease at the time, Mitulski said God called him again — to preach in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District.
“He took that position in San Francisco during the absolute worst period of the epidemic,” said activist Cleve Jones, who created the AIDS quilt. “I stopped going to funerals a long time ago, and I don’t know how he found the strength to (continue). Many of us fled. I fled when I got sick, but he stayed.”
Mitulski kept his sanity by also presiding over hundreds of gay weddings — ceremonies only his church would perform. He smiles remembering how the words “in sickness and in health” and “till death do us part” took on different meanings.
“The weddings made up for the funerals, but sometimes they were very closely related and that was hard,” he said. “Sometimes we would be planning weddings and the person would end up getting sick and dying. I’ve done weddings in hospital rooms. These are not just words. You don’t take it for granted.”
Mitulski’s spirit and compassion sustained many gay men during that challenging time, said Mark Leno, a San Francisco supervisor who worked with Mitulski to put a gay homeless youth shelter in the Castro District.
“Jim was on the front lines of the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic and, in many ways, was the heart and soul of an entire community in mourning,” Leno said.
But by the early 1990s, the death and dying began to kill a part of Mitulski. He starting running to the dance clubs on weekends and using drugs with other gay men who were unsure if the plague would ever end.
“I think I lost my sense of humor completely,” he said. “You forgot to think about the future. Everything became just right then. That moment. That day. And you got used to that. Individually, I suffered from real severe depression, and I think on some interior level, while I believed in the afterlife, I also gave up. I stopped caring.”
Mitulski found out he was HIV-positive in 1995 when he was hospitalized with complications. He suspects he contracted the disease from unprotected sex sometime in the early ’90s when he began engaging in reckless behavior as a way to “self-medicate” his depression.
He felt scared and embarrassed that he had allowed himself — the leader of his 500-member church and a model others looked to for comfort and hope — to fall victim to a disease he knew could be so merciless.
But Mitulski realized God still needed him and his personal struggle helped renew his compassion for others who became newly infected. It also gave him a new perspective about education and prevention.
“Though I wish it hadn’t happened this way, I will say that I made something of it, which is the best you can say when you make a mistake,” he said.
“The truth is, we can’t proceed meaningfully around HIV prevention if we try to scare people. Do we want people to think it’s a picnic? No, it’s not a picnic, but it also isn’t truthful to tell young people, that if you get this, you will die in eight months. So, you have to tell the truth. I’m not sure we’re at that point yet.”
It’s also about time public health officials and religious leaders put aside their differences and work together to save lives, he said — especially in the black community, where HIV rates are increasing and churches represent trusted places where people have always turned.
Black and Hispanic gay and bisexual men are now the group most at risk, making up 52 percent of infections among men who have sex with men, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Of the nation’s estimated 40,000 new infections each year, gay and bisexual men make up the largest rate of any group, accounting for about 40 percent of those infections.
Mitulski, now relatively healthy thanks to a variety of retroviral drugs, left the church last fall to work at the library promoting HIV awareness and working with gay authors and activists.
He attends the All Saints Episcopal Church, where he sings in the choir and gives an occasional guest sermon. His faith has been renewed and he feels his work is done at his old church — it’s up to God to decide his next mission.
“I showed up. I kept the light on, it’s safe to say for many years,” Mitulski said. “It was a very rewarding time, even though it was a very painful time.”