Making a place of welcome in Brighton and Hove

10 March 2021

A vision that anyone with HIV could go to any church and feel at home is part of what drives Heather Leake Date’s work as a chaplain.

hiv-brighton-dsc_0017-editedHeather has been the bedrock of an eight-year ministry to people with HIV in Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area.

“Part of my ordination testimony was that if we are to be the Body of Christ we need to reflect the community we are part of, and HIV is a significant factor in Brighton and Hove,” said Heather, a consultant pharmacist with Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust.

She is also a minister in other appointment, working in the Brighton and Hove Circuit one day a week, including in the Sussex Ecumenical HIV Chaplaincy.

“I was ordained in June 2004 and during my probation I was exploring how I could have a more active focus on HIV in church as well as my secular life,” she said.

It was always important for Heather to work ecumenically and so Churches Together in Central Brighton and Hove became the supporting organisation when the chaplaincy was born on World AIDS Day 2004.

So how does it work?

“It’s flexible. The chaplaincy is not limited geographically but the majority of the people I work with are in the Brighton and Hove area. The chaplaincy itself is me, a phone and an email address. It’s not a place people go to but I can be contacted fairly easily for people to see or talk to.”

The length and intensity of the conversations can vary. For example, Heather has been talking to one young woman over a period of eight years while other conversations may be weekly for a much shorter period.

“I’m available for people of any faith or none but the people know where I’m coming from,” said Heather. “Sometimes I do pray with them or they need someone who will appreciate their faith or give a response that appreciates their faith as well.”

Heather’s background as a pharmacist and an ordained minister means, she believes, that people can come with confidence in her medical training and a trust in her spiritual support. This trust has helped when some church leaders have suggested that people with HIV only need faith and not medication.

“Some patients go to a church but feel that HIV has been an issue where they can’t talk to their leaders so they might call me  to have a chat. I offer a safe space; a non- judgemental listening ear, a place to share what you want to share.”

“They know my background is professional as well so I have been able to share that having faith is not incompatible with accepting treatment.”

As well as providing a place to talk, the chaplaincy also offers some structured events, with support from Dorset Gardens Methodist Church where Lunch Positive every Friday offers a three-course lunch for people with HIV. Heather said, “I go along every two or three weeks, share lunch and mingle. I can occasionally have a deep theological discussion but often it’s about being a presence and showing the human face of the Church. Quite a few people also know me from my hospital role.”

The support of Lunch Positive has been one example of the Brighton and Hove Circuit’s consistent support of Heather’s work.

“Dorset Gardens is in an area of town where a lot of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) businesses are based and a lot of people with HIV live. If we didn’t relate to that we would be a very isolated enclave.”

The main event in the calendar is World AIDS Day on 1 December. Heather meets with Brighton and Hove Community Partnership, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the local authority’s LGBT officer to plan the annual candlelit service. Her role is to add new names to the list for the vigil. She also plans the ecumenical service.

“It’s very important that we have a two- way learning and sharing. We have to share the Good News. We believe we have the Good News to share with everybody but also believe the rest of the community has plenty to share with us. My role is particularly as a bridge that allows these experiences to be shared in both directions.

“Dorset Gardens is a very inclusive congregation, especially since Lunch Positive began, and a number of people with HIV have come along to church, either regularly or occasionally.”

Heather’s wish is that, while engagement with this subject may seem natural for Methodists in the Brighton area, it should be a concern for more Christians.

She said: “It’s almost more important to have chaplaincies in areas with low prevalence of HIV to raise awareness and inform people. There is still a lot of stigma. My vision is that anyone can take a person with HIV to church and they would be welcome.”

Gareth Hill

This article originally appeared in the connexion magazine, issue 2.
Photo of The Revd Heather Leake Date (HIV chaplain) with Gary Pargeter, Lunch Positive Project Manager: © Paul Harrington, TMCP