In 1991, when Reverend Eric Williams was new to his ministry, he was asked to perform a funeral for a young man who'd died of AIDS. The parents wanted to honor their son with a church service. Their own pastor had refused.
An unspoken rule exists among clergy that pastors don't agree to things their colleagues have refused to do, but Williams couldn't stop thinking about the young man's family. The reckoning Williams experienced on the night of that phone call is still shaping Kansas City's approach to AIDS intervention, not to mention his work as a pastor.
"They were alone," he recalls.
It wasn't just the family's pain that gripped him. It was also their love. This was 1991. AIDS was not well understood, and it carried a powerful stigma, in the church and beyond.
"Everything you saw was black and white dads saying, 'I didn't raise a son to be this way,'" Williams says. This family, Williams noticed, had taken a different approach. "They were so warm and wonderful, they embraced his legacy and memory as well as his gay friends."
Williams couldn't bring himself to ignore this family's needs.
"It could have easily been a short story," he says now, with a laugh. "It could have been 'Black minister with Jheri curl announces that we're going to support gay and lesbian people and love them. And the Calvary Temple Baptist Church fires him on the spot.'"
Instead, since that time, Calvary Temple Baptist Church has become what Williams calls "ground zero" for HIV prevention, education and support, and he's recently branched out to address other health concerns, such as obesity. He's also building a podcasting lab at his church to provide a space for kids to process communitywide trauma from gun violence.
He says detractors still urge him to stick to what churches have always done: Sunday school, vacation bible school, scripture.
The text he says he likes to use comes from 3 John: "Beloved: I wish above all things that you'd prosper and be in health even as your soul prospers.' Sometimes we're so focused on the soul that we forget about life," Williams says.
"If the people at your church are sick, they can't really have the abundant life that we keep preaching about. Or if they pass away with AIDS. The pews will be empty if they're hampered by gun violence. You have to justify that in your mind."
He admits the conversations that come up in his mission to teach people about the transmission of HIV can get awkward.
"You gotta talk about sex in church, not sometimes the most comfortable place to talk about it."
To make taking an HIV test less taboo in the community, he made a practice of not just getting tested himself but doing it at church, in front of his congregation. He urged other pastors to do the same.
Williams is convinced that the time to step in is before the funeral.
When he became vocal and active in his HIV/AIDS ministry, he says, social service agencies were happy to see a church figure in the mix. The city's health department was happy, too. His own congregation was supportive of their pastor's vision. But some congregations in town cut ties with him.
"Clergy is a very tight, small, rigid fraternity mainly. And it's easy to become blackballed and cast aside as an albatross or an infidel or whatever, and that didn't feel good," he recalls. "Being rejected by those that you feel that you're most like — it hurt."
And based on their own experiences with churches, some members of the gay community were also not thrilled to encounter someone from a church at funerals for their friends.
"The question was like, 'Why are you here now? My brother's died, my lover's died, and you're the judge,'" he says. "I had to prove that I was there for the long haul. I had to prove what I was carrying was love."
Williams' experience on the receiving end of stigma and prejudice likely helped him understand where they were coming from.
Asked where he grew up, the lifelong Kansas Citian doesn't cite a neighborhood but rather a zip code: 64130. Dubbed "the murder factory" in newspaper story a decade ago, the zip code still carries that notoriety.
"The inference was that nothing good comes from six, four, one, three, oh," Williams says with added emphasis. "I'm like, 'Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, wait a minute. I came from 64130.'"
As part of integration efforts, he was bussed to a school on the opposite side of town. When he arrived at his new school for his first day, he could see a big crowd had gathered where he and his fellow black classmates were to be dropped off.
"I thought it was a welcoming party," he says.
Instead, he was greeted by a white student who stole his lunch. Williams remembers chasing the kid, not understanding what was happening until he caught up to find his lunch being fed to a dog.
"I beat him," he recalls. "I hit him and then the others started fighting. It was a rude awakening to the fact that there are differences and that other people see them."
Williams still struggles, at times, to live up to the kind of acceptance and love he believes in, and he acknowledges there are things he doesn't understand about the experiences of people in the gay community.
"Some things, I guess, are not mine to understand. It's just the fact of treating people the way that I want to be treated. With dignity and honor. With kindness."
Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect reference to the "Murder Factory" zipcode. It is 64130.
Reverend Eric Williams spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.