If Jesus came to Washington -- or New York or San Francisco -- today he would minister unquestioningly to AIDS victims just as he did to the outcasts of His day, an Episcopal priest told a conference of religious workers here yesterday.
Therefore, said the Rev. William A. Doubleday, "Either we minister to all of God's children . . . to all of the people with AIDS . . . or we had best fold our briefcases and go home."
Doubleday, chaplain at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, and other speakers at the daylong conference on ministry to AIDS victims, assailed those who view the disease as God's punishment for homosexual behavior.
Persons who hold such beliefs "have no business working with AIDS patients," Doubleday said.
More than 100 clergy and lay persons from a variety of denominations attended the conference on "AIDS, The Caring Response," conducted by the Washington Cathedral.
Canon Kwasi A. Thornell, who directed the conference, said it grew out of the Episcopal cathedral's study of "AIDS and the common cup," an inquiry into whether the disease could be transmitted by sharing the communion chalice.
While researchers believe it cannot, many churches, including the cathedral, offer alternative ways of receiving communion.
In addition, the Episcopal General Convention last year urged churchwide education about the disease and a minstry of "love and compassion" for its victims.
Doubleday, who teaches at the denomination's General Theological Seminary in New York in addition to his work as a chaplain, assailed the viewpoint "that you find most of all on TV on Sunday morning" that AIDS is God's punishment of homosexuals.
"Nothing I find in the scriptures leads me to believe that God is punishing people with sickness," he said. In a quip he attributed to Bishop Paul Moore of New York, he added, "If that were the case, don't you think those who perpetuate nuclear war . . . would at least get herpes?"
Dr. Casar Caceres, an internist who treats substantial numbers of AIDS patients and was formerly with the U.S. Public Health Service, suggested that current research is not giving enough weight to oral drug use as a predisposing factor for AIDS. Such drugs suppress the body's immune system, a key factor in AIDS, he said.
A study of "non-AIDS patients on [cocaine] or PCP" showed that they "have the very same immune response of AIDS victims," Caceres said.
The finding suggests that many AIDS patients "seem to have been people who already had a preexisting condition" in that their immune system was damaged.
He cited one study that found that 25 percent of AIDS patients had been oral drug users. Yet the Centers for Disease Control does not collect that data, he said, "for reasons I do not understand."
Dr. John Hutchings, assistant director of maternal and child health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that one reason might be that the data of that type are difficult to get.
"People do not want to tell a lot about their sex life. People do not want to tell a lot about drug use," he said.
Debbie Newmark, a social worker at the National Institutes of Health, described for the gathering the massive problems faced by victims of the disease, which is thus far incurable.
"We are dealing with a very frightening reality," she said, which is compounded by "people already biased against the gay community . . . . The stigma increases the shame that society attributes to this population."
Victims, she said, must deal with "fear of dying and the tragedy of young men dying . . . fear of pain, suffering . . . the anxiety of developing infections" that can be life-threatening, "fear of losing a job . . . guilt over an illness that is the result of one's own behavior . . . anger over being treated as a social pariah . . . .
"How to survive as an alien -- that seems to be the issue" for AIDS victims, she said.