By Rich Arenschieldt
Visitors enter a rather nondescript church meeting hall. Round tables are set up. There is food, people chatter and laugh, and a few are engrossed in conversation. Some participants are actively engaged, while others sit quietly. The meal begins. But your first clue that something unique is about to unfold doesn’t occur until someone stands up and says, “Welcome! As a reminder, please know that everything that you hear and see tonight is to be kept confidential.”
And so begins another meeting of the Bering Support Network (BSN). Founded in 1986, it is believed to be the longest continuously functioning HIV-oriented support group in the nation.
According to the group’s director, Jerry Goree, “Bering Church had a long history of welcoming LGBT members prior to the onset of the epidemic, so it then created the BSN in response to a crucial community need when few services existed. HIV-positive Houstonians needed a place where they could simply be with one another, to deal with their diagnosis and illness. BSN provided that—and still does.
“As the need grew, so did the Network. Though the BSN is organizationally separate from the church, [Bering’s members] have always supported us in some way. Contrary to what many people may think, BSN’s focus is not religious in nature. Though we provide ‘spiritual support’ in the broadest sense of the phrase, we are entirely non-denominational,” Goree said.
“The BSN has two main programs. On Tuesdays we host the ‘Lunch Bunch’ for HIV-positive individuals only. We meet for an hour of discussion and then go to a nearby eatery for a meal.”
The Network’s best-known offering is its Wednesday night support group for people with HIV, their friends, and families. The evening begins with a potluck supper at 6:30 p.m.
“The dinner has a special significance to our members,” Goree said. “When BSN began, many people wouldn’t dine with someone who was HIV-positive. Even though that’s no longer the case, the sharing of a meal is still important symbolically.
“Following dinner, we attend a short presentation—usually given by a member of the BSN or an outside presenter. Topics have ranged from serious (managing depression) to entertaining (group drumming). Sometimes these topics spur people to ‘get out of themselves’ and into something creative and uplifting.
“After the presentation we break into small groups, each led by a facilitator from BSN. During these sessions people share what is happening in their lives. They seek information and support from others who’ve had similar experiences. This process of dialogue is a key component of our work—something central to our mission.
“People often isolate themselves following an HIV diagnosis,” Goree said. “They may be depressed or anxious about family and friends knowing of their diagnosis. Many of our long-time participants told us how difficult it was to attend their first gathering. Now they provide support and insight to others confronting those same fears.”
Though BSN has remained faithful to its founding principles, how its mission is accomplished is modified to meet the needs of the participants. As the management of HIV has changed, the issues facing BSN group members have broadened in scope, now encompassing concerns about longevity, wellness, and daily life with the disease.
“One thing remains constant,” Goree said. “There must be a nurturing, confidential space for individuals, who, for a variety of reasons, cannot be open about their lifestyle or HIV status. People need to be able to share who they are and what they are experiencing, without fear.”
Since its inception, BSN has provided support for more than 4,400 people and, Goree said, “We have first-time attendees almost every week, many of whom are here at their doctor’s suggestion. Through the years, one thing is clear: people come to us as they need us. What they eventually realize is that often there are people here who need them.”
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, BSN plans a celebration on Sunday, November 6, at the Hotel Intercontinental, 2222 West Loop South, from 6–8 pm. Tickets are available online at beringsupportnetwork.org.