Sometimes Sam Hunter feels guilty.
Guilty that he has survived when a lover and so many of his friends have died as a result of AIDS.
After all, he took the same risks they did.
“I sometimes feel that it’s not fair,” Hunter said. “But I thank God that I’m here.”
When he feels overwhelmed, Hunter retreats to his prayer room in his Columbia home.
It’s there he can be near the ashes of his lover, Shawn, and his friend Christopher. Their remains stand near a photo montage of other friends Hunter has lost.
“It’s not easy to talk about all the people I’ve lost, all my best friends who passed,” Hunter said.
As a counselor with Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services, every day he counsels young men on how to avoid being infected with HIV. He tells those already infected how to take care of themselves.
Hunter also spreads the message of prevention through his church, First Nazareth Baptist. There, he leads the church’s HIV ministry, Open Hands Open Heart. The ministry holds health fairs and training sessions for 39 other S.C. churches that are part of Project F.A.I.T.H., a $1 million church-based initiative financed by the Legislature.
Hunter, who sometimes becomes Samantha, a female impersonator, is the reason Pastor Blakeley Scott started the ministry 12 years ago.
Since 1978, Hunter’s alter ego has been entertaining crowds as an emcee and host at popular gay bars, beauty contests and fundraisers.
He might seem an unlikely inspiration for a preacher. But what Scott saw was his good works.
He had seen and heard how lovingly Hunter cared for his partner, friends and even people he barely knew who had AIDS.
Hunter took in the homeless, spoon-fed and diapered the helpless, and planned funerals for the dying.
Hunter asked Scott to visit and pray for his friends in the hospital.
Scott counseled patients about their feelings of guilt and anger, spoke of salvation and baptized people on their deathbeds.
He officiated funerals. He cried.
“It kind of struck me then,” he said. “I thought, ‘We need to do something more than just go pray for people in the latter stages.’
Scott looked for examples of AIDS ministries at other churches that had mostly black congregations. He found none, so he started one.
“I’m really kind of old fashioned, but then I’m flexible enough to let God lead me into progressive theology.”
Scott’s mission was not without personal tests of his faith.
Once, during a visit to a man dying of AIDS, he refrained from his usual laying on of hands.
“My conscience bothered me” afterward, he said.
It was the last time he held back from touching a patient.
“(There) is a clear call to ministering to people regardless of who they are,” Scott said. “Our mind-set is, we keep it real and embrace our humanity, and thank God for his love and his generosity.”