Standing in front of an evangelical Christian congregation, Cory Norlund recounts his Baptist upbringing, male lovers, HIV diagnosis and finding Jesus for a second time. Blunt yet polite, the tall, tan, handsome 33-year-old, speaks sincerely, with a disarming openness, occasionally throwing in a charming aside about his mom’s grilled cheese or his day job delivering pizza in San Diego County. The audience members stare, rapt; many have never known an HIV positive person before. Diana and Bob Norlund, his mom and dad, join him in front of the crowd and chime in with their own stories, professing love and respect for their son. Several people are brought to tears. Afterward, many want to thank Norlund. An elderly lady hugs him.
The scene has occurred many times, in evangelical churches in America and around the world—in Malaysia, Belize, Kenya and Uganda. Norlund is a speaker for and board member of He Intends Victory, one of the first and largest Christian AIDS ministries in the world. Since its inception, it has reached thousands of people in 16 countries, and similar, smaller ministries have begun popping up worldwide. However, as the ministry was catching on globally, Norlund, wrestling with sex and the scripture and how or if they could both fit in his life, left the church and his family.
“I gave my heart to Jesus at a very early age,” he says. “As a teenager, I knew being gay wouldn’t fly. My world revolved around the church, and I didn’t want to lose that, so I silently suffered.” After high school, Norlund headed off to Barclay, a Bible college in Kansas. “My way of not falling off the deep end and walking away from the church and into the gay world was to keep busy with good things,” he says. In 1997, after graduating, he returned home and for the first time had no immediate concrete goal. “There were no more mission trips, no more volleyball. I’m a person of extremes, so I went from suppressing everything to going wild.” He moved to Joplin, Missouri, where he worked as a case manager for youth and lived an openly gay life. He lost touch with old friends and family, though on occasion he would speak to his mom. “The two worlds just couldn’t mesh in my heart,” he says. He started dancing at gay bars for extra cash and then in 1999 moved to Orlando, Florida, with a boyfriend and worked as a stripper at a club called Bananas. “Whatever drug or body was put in front of me I would just go after it,” says Norlund. “I was becoming a darker person, and I lost the hope and purpose the church offered me before.”
John Thurman, 41, was friends with Norlund in Joplin. Like Norlund, Thurman grew up in a very religious Baptist family. Unlike Norlund, Thurman did not feel that his same-sex attraction and religious beliefs fundamentally and irrevocably clashed, so he tried to counsel his friend. “I let him know that there was no separation between him and God because of his lifestyle, and I tried to involve him in accepting churches,” says Thurman. “Cory is one of the most gracious, kindest, outgoing, giving people I have ever met, but he was obviously struggling with who he was and who his family wanted him to be.”
Soon after moving to Orlando, Norlund says, “I hit rock bottom. I just felt so broken and worn down. So I called my parents and asked them to come get me.” One month later, in March 2000, the Norlunds drove across the country, picked up their son and brought him home to California. “I knew what his lifestyle was, but I didn’t ask any questions. I am proud of him and have always been,” says his mom. That August, he was diagnosed with HIV. “I wasn’t surprised. It was the consequence of recklessness,” he says. Soon, Norlund decided to rededicate himself to the church and give up dating men. “I didn’t quit cold turkey, and I will never claim to be the poster boy for someone who’s ‘been delivered from all same-sex attraction.’ But I base what I believe is right or wrong on what I understand the Bible to say, which is that God is not honored by men having sex with men or women having sex with women. There are numerous times I have wished that wasn’t my understanding, but sometimes you have to accept things no matter how painful and push through.” He is not currently dating.
A year after his diagnosis, Norlund heard a story about He Intends Victory while listening to a Christian radio station and subsequently attended a speech by another positive Christian. “I thought I was a rare animal, that Christians don’t really become infected with HIV. But I saw that wasn’t the case and they were raising awareness, which I admired. Jesus never asked the leper ‘What did you do to get sick?’ I would never encourage the church to change its policy on homosexuality, but I do encourage it to change its view on homosexuals and respond to them with love.”
Bruce Sonnenberg, pastor of the Village Church in Irvine, California, founded He Intends Victory in the late ’80s to do just that. Sonnenberg says that unlike some conservative Christians, he never believed that AIDS was God’s punishment for sin, but he did believe it was a consequence and was “tired of hearing about it. God had to break my heart from that view,” he says. In 1986, he discovered that three members of his congregation were positive. He visited them in hospitals to provide spiritual guidance and witnessed the staff compromising their care because of fear of HIV. He has since dedicated himself to getting the church to accept positive people and to devote its time and resources to helping them. “I realized early on that putting a face on AIDS will open hearts. And Cory is one of those faces. I’ve seen God use him to change hearts.” Today, in addition to sending out positive emissaries to congregations in the U.S. and abroad, He Intends Victory has begun building practical AIDS-related facilities around the world, including a home for AIDS orphans in Uganda and one for positive men in Malaysia. As for their Christian message, Sonnenberg says, “God calls on us as Christians to share the hope of Jesus, and the Christian life is an important part of life [at our homes].” Sonnenberg adds that they preach the Bush administration–favored ABC prevention method (Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms) with a strong focus on the “A.”
While He Intends Victory preaches love and acceptance toward all people with the virus, only “solid Christians” can represent the ministry as one of their HIV positive speakers, which for them excludes people actively dating members of the same sex. “We are fairly conservative in our theology,” says Sonnenberg. Norlund agrees with the policy and says of the importance of He Intends Victory, “The church is oftentimes one of the biggest creators of stigma, but their foremost role could be destroying it. I want to break down those walls. Plus, as far as funding HIV programs goes, the church has bucks.” Thurman, who is negative and has done HIV prevention outreach in Joplin, takes issue: “I think condemnation led by the church closets gay people and causes secrecy and multiple sex partners, which spreads the virus. However, churches who are supporting gay couples help make our relationships legitimate, limiting partners and reducing risk of infection.”
As for his relationship with his family, Norlund says, “Now we have one.” His dad agrees, “Even though I wish Cory didn’t have this and I could take it from him, it has made us closer. I blame myself a lot for Cory’s sickness. I was a very distant and angry father, and I believe that is one reason he got involved in the [gay] lifestyle.” Mom adds, “If I am honest with myself, I know that before Cory was infected, I would not have reached out. The work has given me a purpose and helped me look outside myself and share God’s strength.” Indeed, in addition to traveling the world together to tell their highly personal tale, the family regularly volunteers at a local AIDS hospice, providing positive people with company and care. Norlund says the hospice residents, many of whom are gay, do not know that he has HIV or that he used to date men. “My beliefs conflict with my desires, and I am just one big walking conflict. A lot of people don’t know what to do with me,” says Norlund. “I walk a thin line between two sides and wait for punches from both. I guess it makes me stronger.”