Radical Pastor Preaches Redemption and Safe Sex


When Melissa Gonzales, 16, receives communion at the church of San Romero de Las Americas in the South Bronx, the altar looks the same as any other, except for a glass bowl full of condoms sitting next to the wine and bread. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Luis Barrios, sees a sacred duty in promoting safe sex among his congregants.

While America’s religious leadership wavers in taking an active role in fighting the AIDS epidemic, Barrios has developed a “Theology of AIDS,” a religious philosophy that embraces an anti-capitalist spirituality, the union of God and sexuality and the ultimate attainment of one simple objective: saving lives.

If they do anything at all, many church leaders will limit their AIDS ministries to counseling and support for the afflicted because they worry that addressing sexuality might promote promiscuity and sex outside marriage. But Barrios has made AIDS education part of his ministry.

The activist pastor’s anti-AIDS work was already setting off alarm bells in the New York Episcopalian diocese in the early 1990s. Today, AIDS is still a leading cause of death among the Latino population, and Barrios is still busy setting off alarms.

Barrios, 53, who is also a professor of Latin American studies at John Jay College, became a pioneer in HIV prevention after his three brothers died of AIDS in the mid-1980s.

“It was a very sad time in my life,” said Barrios, a native of Puerto Rico. “And I still see people dying of this disease every day. I go to more funeral homes than I give sermons.”

The Latino Commission on AIDS, a nonprofit policy group in New York, reports that the number of Latinos living with AIDS in the United States is on the rise. In 1993, 18 percent of the people living with AIDS were Latinos; in 2000, it was 20 percent.

“We’re really having a tough time doing prevention work in Latino communities,” said Damaris Ortega, a project director at the commission. “The majority of Latino people are Catholic, and the church just isn’t promoting condoms or safe sex, all in the name of the institution of marriage.”

When Barrios first came to New York in the early 1990s, he used St. Anne’s, an Episcopalian church where he was ministering, to run an underground clean needles exchange for intravenous drug users to reduce their risk of contracting HIV by sharing used syringes. On a snowy December night, he met Joyce Rivera, the program’s founder, handing out needles to addicts from the trunk of her car. Barrios, whose three brothers contracted HIV from infected needles, quickly invited her to set up shop in his church.

“As a community leader and man of the cloth, Barrios brings light to issues relegated to dark corners,” Rivera said. “That issue was AIDS, and our mission was to save lives.”

At the time, it was illegal to buy and distribute needles without a license, so Barrios hid them in boxes marked “religious materials” and buried them in the cemetery at the back of the church. Rivera says the two acted in response to a “failing system” that was leaving the South Bronx behind.

But not everyone agreed with his tactics. In 1993, Bishop Richard F. Grein, then a leader of the New York Episcopal Diocese, suspended Barrios from the priesthood of St. Anne’s. Aside from the needle exchange program, the diocese disagreed with some of Barrios' other activities like the gay, lesbian and transgender ministries he ran in church. While community protests ultimately forced Grein to accept Barrios back into the diocese, he was forced to start anew at St. Mary’s Church in West Harlem.

Using a strategy he calls the “tension ministry,” Barrios is stirring up controversy again, bringing contraceptives into church and encouraging congregants to speak openly about their sexuality.

“Sexuality is a gift God has given us,” Barrios said. “We’re trying to protect God’s creation, and if you don’t talk about it in Mass, you’re sending the message that God and sexuality aren’t connected.”

By openly confronting contentious issues, Barrios aims to frighten people, raise their consciousness and create enough tension to ultimately dissolve their prejudices.

Amarilis Gonzales, a 42-year-old travel agent who lives in Queens, travels to the Bronx on Sundays to hear Barrios speak. With two teenage daughters and one 11-year-old, she believes that Barrios’ “fearless” approach will prevent her children from getting pregnant or sick.

“My daughters’ decision on whether or not to have sex before marriage will ultimately be a personal one that the church and I cannot influence,” Gonzales said. “I hope she’s ready physically and emotionally, but I wouldn’t insist on abstinence because it’s not foolproof.”

Gonzales’ daughter Melissa, who works as a youth HIV coordinator at the church, has given her sexually active friends condoms from Barrios’ church so that they don’t need to rely on their partners to provide them.

“The reality is that there’s a killing disease out there that’s affecting Latinos,” she said, “and I would rather be empowered at the moment I choose to be sexually active.”

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