Retired pastor serves as leader in AIDS outreach

As he sat in the Brite Divinity School atrium, sipping his steaming coffee and watching the cold rain fall outside, the director of Presbyterian studies spoke softly about his past, choosing every word carefully as if someone were going to challenge his stories. That’s because Warner Bailey has become used to defending himself.

A retired pastor of Ridglea Presbyterian Church, where he served for more than 20 years, Bailey took an unusual route leading his traditionally conservative church.

Bailey, 68, has been involved in AIDS activism since the early 1980s when he first saw an article about it in Newsweek.

“There was a red flashing light to me that signaled this was going to be the issue of our time,” Bailey said.

And indeed it was. Originally perceived as a homosexual disease, AIDS widened the division between the straight and the gay, the left and the right and the sexually active and nonactive in a way no other issue had before.

Bailey has devoted much of his life to bridge those gaps.

In the early 1990s, Bailey received a grant to found the Tarrant County Community AIDS Partnership through the Fort Worth foundation.

His work through the AIDS funding agency earned him the opportunity to write the first opinion piece on AIDS to appear in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1991, as a part of Fort Worth’s first observance of World AIDS Day.

The result was surprising, Bailey said.

“It got me in trouble,” Bailey said about his involvement in AIDS outreach. “I made the church sit back on its heels.”

Explicit letters marked with Nazi swastikas, mass-produced hate mail and discontent in his own church were some of the reactions Bailey received from his article.

Bailey recalled a particularly hurtful experience of dealing with someone who did not agree with him.

In 1989, he was invited to attend an AIDS conference in San Francisco by his church’s Senate.

Bailey said he was honored to go but was also faced with a tough decision of having to leave his congregation for an issue many in his congregation considered the result of immoral behavior.

Sure enough, shortly after the conference, one of his church members laid sick in a hospital that would not give away the names of its patients, so Bailey did not receive a notice to visit him.

Out of anger and hurt for not being visited by the pastor, Bailey said, the man proclaimed, “Pastor Bailey can go visit the queers in San Francisco but can’t come see me in the hospital.”

But Bailey did not waver in his beliefs.

“I always kind of kept my eye out for the unpopular cause,” Bailey said.

Mary, Bailey’s wife of 42 years, said despite some harsh reactions in his church, her husband never hid his passion about AIDS outreach.

“If someone came up to him and asked about it, he would answer them honestly,” Mary said.

“But he didn’t put a sign in his yard or a bumper sticker on his car,” she added.

Bob West, a longtime member of Ridglea and chairman of the committee that hired Bailey as pastor 22 years ago, said Bailey was able to help the church to better understand controversial subjects such as AIDS.

“Warner is good at identifying issues and working with people to resolve them,” West said. “It’s not the most popular stance to take in Fort Worth, but he believed it was the right thing to do.”

Bailey said he was able to find a balance with his service work and those in his congregation who didn’t agree with it.

“They might say, ‘he is a good pastor even though he is not right in what he’s doing,'” Bailey said. “But when you set out to be a peacemaker, you need to try and find the value and goodness in everyone who comes to the table to talk.”

And his journey as “peacemaker” hasn’t been all hardship. There have been rewards, both personal and tangible, for Bailey.

After he wrote his column for the Star-Telegram on World AIDS Day, he said he received an inspiriting letter amidst all the hate mail.

It was from a former student of his while he was a professor at a small university in Indiana.

The letter said the young man had come to realize he was gay and wanted to thank Bailey for his article and tell him how much it meant to him.

“This article, which had caused so much hate mail, reached out to one person,” Bailey said.

Bailey eventually left Ridglea Presbyterian Church after 22 years because, he said, he felt it was time to step down. After retiring as pastor, he decided to stop attending it all together because he said the congregation needed to focus on its new leader.

Bailey has since retired from the founding chair of the Tarrant County Community AIDS Partnership. He is now focusing on being an active member of his new church, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, and his teaching at Brite Divinity School.

Bailey is an adjunct professor where he acts as a shepherd to Presbyterian students as they prepare to be leaders in the church, bestowing upon them the openness and acceptance he has preached for so long.

Bailey said religion, as a whole, is beginning to view issues once seen as too far left as real concerns.

At St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Ridglea, the senior pastor is actively involved in community outreach along with Bailey.

“There is a great debate in conservative Christianity over the place the church ought to give to social action and ethics,” Bailey said. “Now they’re saying, ‘this is God’s world, we need to manage it better.’