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Presbyterian AIDS Network (PAN) presents our First Faith in Action Award

Three men, one receiving an award

Elder Rafael Rodriguez and the Red Ribbon Fellowship of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, N.J. receives the PAN Faith In Action Award at the 219th General Assembly. Photo courtesy of PHEWA.

The first ever PAN Faith In Action Award was presented to Elder Rafael Rodriguez and the Red Ribbon Fellowship of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, N.J. at the PHEWA Ministry Awards Celebration Reception at the 219th General Assembly on July 5, 2010. Pastor Robert D. Higgs was present to accept the award, along with Rafael. Rafael’s moving acceptance speech, telling their ministry story, is included here, below. The Rev. Charles Hale, a former pastor of First Pres of Elizabeth, and important in the formation of the Red Ribbon Fellowship, stated before the reception that being present for this award presentation “is the highlight of my ministry.”  The newly elected Moderator of this 219th General Assembly, Cynthia Bolbach, visited the Reception to give her welcome and a pat on the back to the ministries of PHEWA.  She raised her stained finger and announced that she had been tested and, “I know my HIV status.”  We hope that she says that, everywhere that she goes!  

PHEWA Ministry Awards Celebration Reception

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, Minn.
July 5, 2010

Introduction of Rafael Rodriguez of the Red Ribbon Fellowship

By Bob Schminkey, co-moderator, Presbyterian AIDS Network (PAN)

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;*
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.* 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’* (Matthew 21:42-43)

When PAN announced our first ever “Faith In Action” Award, we expected to discover some unknown congregational programs working on HIV and AIDS issues.  Instead, we were overwhelmed to learn of so many ministries that are transforming their congregations and their communities.

We learned about the Kwanzaa Community Church right here in the Twin Cities and their sidewalk art project, part of their powerful HIV and AIDS outreach to the community.  We learned about HopeSprings ministry, a most effective project of what may be considered conservative and liberal Presbyterian congregations, working together in Baltimore. We learned of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and their Harm Reduction Program in their community.  Each of these was more than qualified to receive our award this year.

Our award recipient is truly a story of community and congregational transformation. The Red Ribbon Fellowship of First Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey is a 20 year long story, that begins with a group of about 20 gay, Roman Catholic men who started a ministry of service and celebration and, in the process, transformed one of the oldest churches in our denomination into the vibrant place it is today.

I’d like to invite Rafael Rodriguez of the Red Ribbon Fellowship to come up to receive the PAN Faith In Action Award, and tell us their story.

Remarks by Elder Rafael Rodriguez (unedited)

Red Ribbon Fellowship of First Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth N.J.
July 5, 2010

Greetings, every one, and blessings in the name of Jesus Christ from The First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, N.J. and The Red Ribbon Fellowship.

First, let me extend our deepest appreciation to the Reverends Charles Hale and Bob Higgs for their nomination of the Red Ribbon Fellowship to PHEWA and the Presbyterian AIDS Network. We are deeply indebted to you for your kindness, compassion and dedication to the infected, affected and concerned individuals about HIV and AIDS.

First Church began its concern with AIDS in the mid '80s; at a time when stigma and discrimination were running rampant everywhere. The Rev. Jim Reisner, with the assistance of Rev. Hale, started to address the needs of a community concerned about the plight of HIV and AIDS. They created a support group on Wednesday evenings that quickly showed the signs of a growing ministry, which brought Hope and Healing to many individuals frightened by the AIDS pandemic. 

By the early '90s the group had become resilient in hope and spirit. It was then that a deep conversation began to occur; gently the group started to speak about spirituality and the love of God. One young man, who clearly was very ill, led the way, when he shared ,and I quote, he said, “Coming here when I can has helped me, feeling the love you all share has given me strength and courage, so much that I decided to go to my church last Sunday. I got there early and sat in back pew, the church quickly filled up, there were even people standing. But my pew was empty, I felt so bad, but I forgive them because they don’t understand.”

Why do I want to spend this precious thank you time, telling you this story, because the fear, stigma and discrimination still live on, silently and strongly amongst us.  I should know, I can feel it and read the body language and read between the lines of many of my colleagues.  Fear, can kill you, stigma, dissociates you  and discrimination fools you into believing that you are better than the other.

I saw the face of the Risen Christ in the face of that young man that evening, and he breathed the Holy Spirit of forgiveness to our group. After that Wednesday, and for many Wednesday’s to come, the group continued talking about God, Jesus, the Spirit and religion. That same young man asked, “Can this church start a fellowship where we don’t feel like outcasts?”  The conversation went on with strong contributions from others in the group. 

First Church heard the request and called Rev. Hale once again to coordinate a steering committee out of the group, It took one year and the Red Ribbon Fellowship was born on Friday, March 24, 1994. It was open to everyone who seeks the love of God and one another in the context of Christian worship and fellowship.

Science began to develop life-saving drugs and treatments, providing longevity to those infected.  Those HIV positive in the fellowship, along with others who were affected and concerned, began to venture out to First Church on Sunday mornings, as well.

They discovered that all along, they were being embraced by a historically important church in New Jersey, and took an interest in visiting the burial grounds where a history lesson was awaiting them. There, the discarded cornerstone began to take its new shape; they asked if they could clear the over grown weeds covering the grave markers and new life began to emerge out of the ashes of the past.

Many of them, infected and affected, joined the church as new members, some became officers. New life continued at First church and at the Red Ribbon Fellowship (RRF). 

For the last 16 years the ministry has been providing support groups for the infected and affected, advocacy, counseling, outreach to people at risk and HIV awareness training, in partnership with the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation and PROCEED, Inc. RRF has HIV tested over 2000 individuals in our community, we have provided camp opportunities for youngsters and retreats for adults. The Westfield Presbyterian Church gives to us food not served at the Agape Feeding Project; their donation helps us to serve complete meals before every support group and RRF worship services. With donations from the Union County’s parks department we provide Christmas gifts to over 50 families annually and with donations from a hotel distributor we are able to assist those in need of household products and linens, as well as to make up hundreds of toiletry kids for our outreach at health fairs, senior centers, churches community fairs, etc.  

But, no growth is without pain, The Red Ribbon Fellowship is experiencing its share of trials and tribulations. Funding has become minimal and our dreams of adding several other support systems are on hold. We wish to further expand our services to those HIV positive and those who are not HIV positive, by addressing the needs of people living with diabetes who need a better understanding of their illnesses management and people with mental heath issues through support groups, but the money is not there yet to pay for facilitators. In order to accomplish our mission our next alternative may be to seek financial support from the other churches in our Presbytery.

At First Church, The Red Ribbon Fellowship has become a testament to the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, where God manifests Himself to all God’s people through Christ’s unconditional love. Our mantra is "People Caring for People."

We are grateful to the PHEWA and your Presbyterian AIDS Network for your continued advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in need of a voice. We are also deeply thankful for the honor you bestow up on us. Let all these things be to the Glory of God. 

Elder Rafael Rodriguez
First Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth, N.J.