Corinne Denegre
Corinne Denegre, who leads the Community Service Committee at St. Stephens Episcopal Church, is organizing a community dinner and discussion on Sunday to help members of the faith community learn how to support people with HIV/AIDS.

For Corinne Denegre, AIDS is more than a disease that touches faceless, nameless people.

Denegre, chairman of the Community Service Committee at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Billings, has had two family members diagnosed with it.

That was back in the mid-1980s, when Denegre lived in New Orleans.

"At that time, there was such fear about AIDS," she said. "And people with AIDS were treated with a lot of fear. They felt isolated."

Some things have changed since then, she said.

"It's not seen as a death sentence as it once was," Denegre said, and medications have come a long way. "But the stigma is still enormous."

That's why she turned to her parish, St. Stephens, to encourage people of the faith community to reach out to people with HIV or AIDS. With the blessing of the church's rector, the Rev. Jacob Knee, the church is putting on a community dinner and discussion on Sunday to help members of the faith community learn how to get involved.

Even though HIV/AIDS isn't in the media spotlight these days, it hasn't disappeared, Denegre said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Detection, the number of people with HIV infection in the United States totals about 1.1 million.

Dean Wells, executive director of the Yellowstone AIDS Project, said hat as of the last census, about 415 people were known to be living with HIV in Montana. Yellowstone County has the highest number in the state, and 20-plus new cases are diagnosed each year.

In 2009, Wells said, about 31 cases were diagnosed in the county. The totals for 2010 aren't in yet, he said, but the number probably will be in the mid-20s.

Wells agrees with Denegre's belief that people with the disease tend to feel incredibly stigmatized.

"They fear letting their status be known to anyone," he said. "They're afraid if their landlord finds out, they'll be evicted or if their boss finds out, they'll be fired. So they hide this often and they live in pretty much constant fear of someone finding out."

Denegre has been working with Wells on the dinner and discussion. She has also included AIDSpirit, a faith-based Billings nonprofit that reaches out to people afflicted with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

Both groups will take part in Sunday night's discussion.

Sister Mary V. Maronick, who has with AIDSpirit since 1996, is pleased to be involved in the effort to engage more people of faith. "We're pretty excited a church has gotten involved in wanting to get as many people as possible in the congregation involved in this community effort," Maronick said.

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Holy Rosary Church in Billings gives AIDSpirit office space. And the Catholic parish raises money for the nonprofit's outreach to AIDS orphans in Africa.

But there aren't any local churches that Maronick knows of that work with the community's HIV/AIDS population. Among the services AIDSpirit provides is offering meals to clients.

Denegre helps with that program. She makes and brings dinner to two HIV clients in Billings every week. It's a way, she said, of letting them know that someone cares.

"When I prepare and take a meal, it gives me a chance to think about them, make them feel a little less alone," she said. "It's a way of letting them know we haven't forgotten about them."

Kathy Hall, who recently retired after years of working with HIV/AIDS patients through RiverStone Health, also volunteers with AIDSpirit. She said supporting patients with HIV is crucial.

"I think that clients would have much more likelihood of staying on their medications if they felt supported and loved by friends and family and the community in general," she said.

That's critical, Hall said, because people with the disease who stop their drug regimen can build up a resistance to the drugs.

That same care can help with prevention, Maronick said.

"If you think about it, somebody who is loved and supported is going to be much more likely to take steps to prevent the spread of HIV as opposed to someone who feels ostracized by the world," she said.

For Denegre, there is also the pain that people with HIV/AIDS experience when they feel rejected by faith communities. She remembers an AIDS patient in New Orleans she invited to church, but he worried he might not be welcome.

"I think sometimes people with AIDS have gotten a mixed message on how they would be received in church," Denegre said.

Maronick agrees.

"The very places that should be offering support and love, the gospel message, is the very place they feel shunned by," she said.

Wells hopes Sunday's event will help make members of that population feel welcome and accepted.

"When they can see there are people who care about them, that they are trying to do something for them, I think it will heal some of that pain from their past," he said.

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