INDIANAPOLIS (ABP) —The birthday celebrations that Karen Estle throws each month at an Indianapolis apartment building for people living with HIV/AIDS stick to the basics — a cake, sometimes pie, ice cream, soda and a card and gift bought from a local dollar store.
For many residents, the celebration is the only recognition of their birthday.
Some residents attend the birthday parties because they are regular members of the weekly HIV/AIDS support group that Estle leads. Others come to satisfy an empty stomach.
“I make it clear that everyone is welcome,” said Estle, a member of Speedway Baptist Church in Indianapolis. “When a resident objects that someone only comes for cake, I explain it is not up to me to judge.”
Estle, a certified pastoral counselor with an endorsement through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is the spiritual advisor with the palliative-care team at Wishard Health Services in Indianapolis.
During the 13 years that Estle has led the HIV/AIDS support group, residents have shared how others have abandoned or rejected them because of their HIV status. But the residents’ expressions — hardened by years of anger and fear — begin to soften when Estle shares her own story of rejection.
Estle, who survived polio as a child, shares how some people were afraid to touch her when she had the dreaded disease of her day. Once, she was in her front yard when a man arrived to deliver some important papers to her parents. Rather than delivering the documents to the door and risking contact with someone who had polio, he instead tossed them into the yard.
“It amazes me how this story still calms down an angry new resident today as they realize I understand,” Estle said. “I model Christ’s unconditional love by touching, listening or being present. It creates an atmosphere in which topics and questions can be raised, discussed and wondered about. Over time, trust develops and healing comes.”
The support group gives participants emotional and spiritual support as well as practical help with daily living. Residents have learned how to use the bus, where to buy groceries, how to access social services and how to deal with the side effects of medications, she said.
Estle has seen members of the group transformed by Christ’s love. One man recently told Estle that he had let go of his anger and gave her a note asking her to keep spreading the “light.” Other residents ask Estle to buy a gift for a hospital patient in place of a birthday gift for themselves.
Members of Speedway Baptist have joined Estle in her ministry at the apartment complex. The church covers the costs for the monthly birthday celebrations. One of the women’s Bible study classes at Speedway provides meals for the residents four to five times a year. The women, who range in age from 50 to 90, eat with the residents and often play board games.
“I believe each of the women have helped residents heal from broken family relationships,” Estle said. “The new residents are always surprised to find women who are like mothers and grandmas who are coming to feed and nurture them.”
One of the women, Joyce Finch, lost her son to AIDS in 1992. She seldom mentioned his death and the disease that caused it at the time “because it was not a thing that was talked about,” she said.
Finch’s friendships with the residents have helped her heal from her son’s loss, she said. Her first-hand experience with the challenges her son faced while living with AIDS now helps her relate to the residents.
“It takes a really courageous person to live with the physical effects of the disease and the social stigma attached to it,” Finch said. “They need all of the encouragement and help that they can receive because it isn’t an easy way to live. They need to be accepted as they are.”
“Jesus was inclusive,” she said. “He didn’t turn his back on anyone.”