From his silver hair and silver-rimmed glasses to his booming voice to his corny jokes that make you laugh in spite of yourself, Dr. Jimmy R. Allen resembles any number of Baptist preachers and television evangelists.
But when he spoke in Memphis last week he told a personal story that challenged listeners to rethink their ideas about AIDS -- not to mention Southern Baptist preachers.
Spiritual without being evangelical, stirring without being sentimental, and struggling at times to keep his composure while telling a story he has told hundreds of times, Rev. Allen spoke to a few hundred people at Union Avenue Baptist Church last Saturday as part of World AIDS Day.
Allen is former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the position that has been held three times by Rev. Adrian Rogers of Bellevue Baptist Church.
AIDS is an inside-the-newspaper story now, shoved aside by the economy, terrorism, and a sense of familiarity. The bigger the numbers grow -- 60 million people infected worldwide, 900,000 Americans living with AIDS -- the more impersonal the story becomes.
"We've grown accustomed to its face," said Allen. With advances in medical treatments for AIDS, "a great sigh of relief kind of swept over our nation." The panic that swept the country 20 years ago is gone.
AIDS came to Allen's family in 1985 when Allen was living in Nashville. His son Scott called from his home in Dallas to tell him Scott's wife and two children were all HIV-positive.
"I didn't have any idea what the guy was talking about," said Allen. "I knew AIDS had something to do with the gay community out in San Francisco."
Every church they went to in Dallas refused to take Scott's 3-year-old son in their Sunday school. So father and grandfather began taking the little boy to McDonald's playgrounds for "guys' days" instead. Their other refuge was the public school system, which the boy attended until he died at the age of 13.
Allen's other grandson died at eight months. Rev. Allen struggled as he explained how the mortician would not handle the body for fear of contracting the disease. The experiences, including his wife's death from the disease, left Scott so shaken that he left the ministry, moved to Australia, and became a writer.
But AIDS touched Allen's family again. He talked last week about his middle son, Skip, who is gay and who also has AIDS. In a TV movie, this would be the part where father and son reconcile but not in this case.
"There is a lot of tension in our lives," Allen said. "He just doesn't see the Bible like I do."
Allen, who wrote a book about his experiences called The Burden of a Secret, said his family's attempts to hide unpleasant facts only cut them off from the love they needed. Pointing to the AIDS memorial quilts hanging around the sanctuary, he urged his audience of 300 or so to "find a way to sing their songs."
Sections of the memorial quilt are on display this week at two Memphis churches. Union Avenue Baptist Church, (2181 Union Avenue), and Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, (620 Parkrose), will each host 20 sections of the quilt through December 6th.
The quilt project began in San Francisco in 1987 and now includes more than 44,000 individual panels in memory of people who died of AIDS complications.
The Memphis and Shelby County Health Department says AIDS is the 10th leading cause of death in Shelby County, killing 123 people in 1999 and 118 in 2000, the most recent year for which records are complete. Through September of this year, there were 5,122 HIV cases and 3,210 cases of full-blown AIDS in Memphis.
For a more arresting presentation of the numbers, see the markers decked with red ribbons on the lawn outside First Baptist Church at Poplar and East Parkway -- before they are removed on December 8th.