by Rev. Betty Youngman
My first pastorate was with the Meadowbrook Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a small congregation located in what was called “a transitional” neighborhood… elderly folk were moving out and mostly African-American families were moving in. I frequently preached that we should welcome whoever came to our door, and the congregation affirmed this goal.
Among those we welcomed was a very nice gay couple. Their return for the second Sunday was a signal to me that it was time for a pastoral visit. What I learned on that visit changed the direction of my life.
The guys had just moved into our neighborhood to be near friends of theirs who needed their help. While I visited, they asked, would I please make a hospital visit to a close friend who had AIDS.
This was during the early days of the AIDS epidemic and fear was pervasive. Scientists had determined that the disease was transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids…probably. But when I arrived at the hospital I found the patient in strict isolation, and visitors were required to gown up, head to toe. My path from the door of his room to his bedside took forever. My mantra “you can’t get this from touch” seemed as much a prayer for God’s guidance as a wish to be anywhere else but in this hospital.
What I learned from that very young and very ill gentleman changed the course of the Meadowbrook congregation. He was one of five living in a one-room apartment…four of whom had AIDS. All had been separated from their families of origin. The fifth person was employed, trying simultaneously to pay rent and to provide food and nursing care to his friends. This apartment was located no more than a block and a half from my church.
I consulted the elders of the church, who directed me to go on a fact finding mission. I went to a County Public Health meeting and learned that case numbers were rising, early medications were only available in a neighboring county, and that a hospital chaplain and I were the only clergy persons showing any concern about pastoral care, medical care, housing, isolation for those afflicted with this disease.
So now I was on a mission. First I learned as much as I could about homosexuality, and then I began knocking on doors of the largest churches in Fort Worth. Within a short time, we had a working group from a dozen congregations forming what we called AIDS Interfaith Network. This group drew from participating churches to create Care Teams who visited the sick, arranged transportation for medical appointments, and provided strong arms, willing hearts, empathy, and many prayers. But soon it was apparent that the overwhelming unmet need was affordable housing, coupled with some basic nursing care.
I was a part of a small team that explored deserted houses, vacant warehouses, and borrowed dwellings in search of facilities that might meet this need. At last we were given a defunct nursing home and recruited various community groups to decorate individual rooms. Shortly after the grand opening, we learned that the space we had was not adequate, and full time staffing was essential…so we learned to write grants, and shake the trees of city, county, and federal budgets. This effort was the genesis for Samaritan House.
In the meantime, my congregation began to grow, partially from new gay members who taught Sunday School, led the music program, served on the Session, and helped in maintenance. But we also found neighbors and family members who were drawn by the excitement being generated by our mission. One remarkable event was an annual Thanksgiving supper for PWAs [“People With AIDS”]… attended by some 50 gentlemen in addition to the congregation.
Unfortunately, we also had a disproportionate share of funerals over the years.
AIDS Interfaith has recently closed down as the particular services the group provided are no longer a pressing need. However, the supportive housing model, demonstrated by Samaritan House, has remained vital in Fort Worth. The organization serves people who are living at or below the poverty level with chronic health conditions, including mental illness and medical and physical disabilities. Betty later served as Executive Director and Board President of Samaritan House, and she continues to be an active supporter of the organization today! Several years ago, the Board of Samaritan House was asked to take on the management of supportive housing for MHMR and today it is a key participant in the efforts to mitigate homelessness in Fort Worth.
“Much is asked from those to whom much has been given.”
Reverend Betty Youngman was born on October 14, 1933, in Omaha. She and her husband DeLyle R. Youngman, a physician and surgeon in the Air Force, lived at various times in England, Colorado, Japan, Texas, and Alaska. After Dr. Youngman’s retirement to private practice in Fort Worth, the couple discovered Trinity Cumberland Presbyterian Church there, and Betty started seminary at Brite Divinity School. She was ordained on May 27, 1984, by what is now Red River Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination. Rev. Youngman was the pastor of Meadowbrook in Fort Worth from 1984-1990, the Stated Supply of Newberry church in Millsap, Texas, and Browning Heights Presbyterian in Fort Worth. She served in interim capacities at Olney church in Olney Texas, St. Francis Presbyterian in Fort Worth, Lake Highlands in Dallas, and Trinity in Fort Worth. She also served on the board of Christian Education for Texas Synod.
Rev. Youngman served as Executive Director of Samaritan House in Fort Worth in 1994 and was the Board President from 1994-1997. She was the founder and a volunteer for Eastside Ministries. She was also the founder and board member of both the AIDS Interfaith Network and Samaritan House for Persons with AIDS. Betty currently resides in Georgetown, Texas.