RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- More than three decades since the HIV-AIDS epidemic hit the nation, survivors report seeing similarities between the epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Raleigh man wishing to remain anonymous referred to himself as Charles St. John lived with HIV for almost 40 years. At the age of 20-year-sold, John was first diagnosed in 1983 at the height of the HIV-AIDS epidemic.
"I identify as a gay white male," said John. "People didn't know what was creating or causing the epidemic at the time. People were blaming: it's these people, it's these populations, communities of color, communities marginalized by socio-economic status."
HIV has put Charles more at risk for contracting COVID-19 with a weakened immune system during the pandemic, forcing him to limit in-person interactions.
"We have leaders here who saw us through the AIDS crisis. At a time when people couldn't do life as normal and were dealing with stigma and a world-changing event," said senior Pastor Vance Haywood at St. John's Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh. "It's a safe space for anybody to come and be."
The ministry focusing on the LGBTQ population and others in the community. Church leaders say the pandemic has revealed just how critical it is for members like Charles to have a sense of community. Finding a way for them to connect even after the pandemic forced St. John's and other churches to slow the spread by temporarily closing their doors.
"A huge hurt for people to lose that ability. Just to be in community with one another. Seeing a smiling face, hugging each other and being able to share stories from the week," said Haywood.
Church leaders have transformed the sanctuary into a shelter for those who need it, continuing to serve the fight against hunger through this food pantry and starting a series of virtual conversations to help. That has helped members in the congregation like Charles desperately seeking community.
"Laughing with folks, crying with folks. Starting a phone tree to try to connect by phone again," said Haywood.