As executive director of the nonprofit AIDS Help, Scott Pridgen is reminded daily of some words from Mother Teresa:
"Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows injustice, poverty and disease when I know he could do something about it," Pridgen said Sunday, during a prayer service for the healing of AIDS.
"But I don't ask him because I'm afraid he might ask me the same thing."
The quiet gathering of 32 people inside St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 800 Center St., included prayers, hymns and moments for people to call out the names of loved ones who have died of the incurable disease and those who struggle with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
For the fifth year running, Key West's Interfaith Ministerial Alliance held the service as part of the national effort to pray this past week for a cure to AIDS. Organizers included the Rev. Randy Becker, the alliance's president, and the Rev. Rick Effinger of St. Peter's.
But religious leaders Sunday called for compassion for all suffering, no matter what the cause.
"In Key West we are all equal members of one human family," the Rev. Philip Smedsted said, before leading a responsive prayer. "We give thanks that more importantly, the day is coming when we will not judge anyone. Everyone will truly be seen as an equal and feel safe, and be whatever they are meant to be."
Smedsted led the audience in a prayer that included the refrain, "God of the gay and God of the straight, God of the sober and God of the addicted, God of the abused and God of the abuser."
The Rev. Ruben Velasco, of the United Methodist Church, chose the Biblical story of Noah as a reading, adding, "In the midst of the storms of our lives, God sets a rainbow."
The Rev. Darryl Robinson of Big Coppitt First Baptist Church closed the event with a call to service.
Musicians Michael Kilgore, Catherine Good Duncan and Melody Cooper ended the service with a rousing version of the hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."
Sunday's 45-minute service included Pridgen's reminder that health care management and breakthroughs in treatments have rendered HIV/AIDS a chronic illness in the medical world, and no longer a death sentence.
"People are not dying of AIDS," Pridgen said. "When they are properly housed and medicated they are living with the disease well into their senior years. The gift never thought possible of growing old is now becoming a reality."
However, as people with the HIV virus live longer, they face the obstacles of the aging process having already had their bodies exacerbated by the toll of medications and treatment, Pridgen said.
In response, the nonprofit AIDS Help has changed the way it once did business, reaching out to other nonprofits and agencies to share resources, such as its Information Technology and marketing departments with Wesley House and sharing a telephone service.
Another partnership, with Florida International University and the Monroe County Department of Health, has made it possible for AIDS Help to bring in an intern who will study over the next five years how HIV and AIDS are trending in the community, Pridgen said.
"A wrap-around philosophy has to be taken into consideration to ensure people get timely care," said Pridgen, who added that AIDS Help is keeping a close eye on the Keys' homeless population as well.
Pridgen recently took over as the chairman of the board of directors of the Monroe County Continuum of Care, the lead agency for the Keys when it comes to delivering grants for homeless programs.
The nonprofit director also quoted from Scripture, taking a verse from the book of Isaiah: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word."
Pridgen said, "Let's ask God to give us the voice of a teacher so that we can sustain those who are in need of a word, or a hug or simply a smile."