Bering UMC: Recognized for a Legacy of Leadership in HIV/Aids Ministry
In recognition of three decades of ministry to the HIV/Aids community, Bering UMC, Houston, was honored at the recent United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Conference hosted by UM Committee on Relief.
Located in the heart of Houston’s Montrose area, Bering UMC is – and has been for 30 years – serving people that most others do not serve. In fact, Rev. Ernest Turney, pastoring there for the last seven years, believes Bering UMC “is the most unique congregation in the U.S. because 80-90% of the members are active in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.” History indicates Bering UMC was the only Houston church in the 1970s actively welcoming homosexual, bisexual and transexual individuals – a gesture that led the church to provide spiritual support, create a dental clinic, and other ministries centered around individuals suffering from HIV/Aids, rejection or homelessness related to their sexual preferences.
“In the 1970s, Bering UMC was on the brink of closing,” shares Ernie, “and here we are several decades later still faithfully bearing testimony that there is a need for this interesting ministry, albeit one that varies greatly from the traditional Methodist congregation.” In recognition of the church’s long history of supporting this often-rejected segment of the population, Ernie received an award – to his surprise – at the recent Countdown to Zero Conference hosted by the UM Global Aids Fund. “The award symbolizes the community and support system we have built for the gay community dating back to the early days when no one knew much about the Aids virus and fear was rampant in the world,” he shares.
“This church has changed me,” he admits. “Prior to my arrival, I knew nothing about T-cell counts or even what LGBT initials stood for, so I have been on a long learning curve. But in that time I have met a lot of wonderful people who have been severely wounded by friends, families and even churches. Nowadays I wear multiple hats to coordinate as much as I can for the hundreds that continue to come here for spiritual and physical needs.”
In its seventh year, the dental clinic housed at Bering UMC has been organized as a separate 501c3 organization and sees an average of 50-60 LGBT patients a day. “We also have a daycare on campus to help families who have been kicked out of the community centers or not welcomed in other environments,” adds Ernie. The other significantly impactful ministry spinning off from Bering UMC as a separate entity is the Omega House hospice/respite center. “People with no family or friends to turn to, or money to spend often come here to die.” Additionally, the church sponsors a homeless ministry that targets young adults 18-24.
The good news, he reports, is that continued focus is resulting in a precipitous drop in HIV/Aids cases in recent years worldwide due to medicines and education on the disease. “Bering UMC will continue to carry the banner forward and keep having these conversations,” notes Ernie. “Some of our members come from as far as 40 miles away because they do not feel welcomed anywhere else. It was a tremendous honor and a wonderful surprise to get an award for something that has changed so many lives, including mine.”
Linda Bales Todd, Co-chair, United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee ADDs "Rev. Ernie Turney is one of those faithful servants who has taken his call to work for peace and justice seriously. Over the years, Ernie has walked with and ministered to those living on the margins of society including those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. The award committee of the Countdown to Zero AIDS Conference believed that Rev. Turney exemplifies the kind of pastor who can mobilize support to address human needs and work to eradicate those factors that bring distress and stigma to those living with HIV and AIDS. Both he and the members of Bering UMC are commended for "walking the talk" and embracing all God's children as valued human beings."