He’s an HIV-positive military vet who speaks openly about his relationships with men. And that’s precisely what makes Reverend Stacey Latimer ideally suited to help lead the black church’s growing fight against AIDS across America.

The Reverend Stacey Latimer paces past the tall metal poles that hide his face from the congregation. “You think you can’t do it,” he preaches melodically. “I used to think I couldn’t do it. I started out in the pit of ignorance, but I rearranged the furniture of bitterness. And that forgiveness didn’t fix them. It fixed me.”

As Latimer, 45, walks around the church, his long black minister’s robe swings from his lanky frame. During his sermon, his face stays calm, but he gestures dramatically at the 150 people seated in the old Brooklyn warehouse. He asks the Unity Fellowship Church to forgive those who may have hurt or wronged them. In response, they jump up, clapping and shouting “Amen,” as the keyboardist chimes in with gospels chords.

Like many gay men and women who grew up in churches proclaiming their damnation, Latimer has spent years living with the bitterness, shame and anger he’s preaching against. “Without guidance or intervention, most [gay people] abandon their faith,” he says. However, instead of condemning the church that enveloped him in his youth, Latimer is working to change the church’s stance on such issues as HIV and homosexuality—from the inside. Indeed, in the course of his life, Latimer has come up against, and also embraced, some of the most challenging forces arrayed against an HIV-positive, gay man: the church, the military and an African-American community polarized by the notion of the “down low.”

At a time when many churches preach only abstinence, ban condoms and condemn gay men and women, furthering HIV stigma and ostracizing many in need, Latimer uses his personal story to urge love and acceptance for all. He stands before both judgmental congregations and those embracing gay and HIV-positive people. “The church is just people. The Bible tells us that man shall fail us, and that includes church officials.”

Latimer grew up in Laurens, South Carolina, the youngest of four children—the only son in a loving, devout Southern Baptist family. “Unlike most kids, I looked forward to church every Sunday, especially the choir. I just loved that music,” he says. Latimer’s father didn’t feel the same; he had the family piano shipped out on the back of a truck after he discovered young Stacey pounding out gospel tunes, a habit he found unmanly. “It crushed me,” Latimer recalls.

At an early age, Latimer noticed he was not like most boys living in his community. “I went through puberty suppressing my attraction to boys. [Eventually I realized] this is my God-given makeup, and my sexuality is a gift. The task was that I learned to treat it as such. Same-gender-loving people have been part of our families, communities, churches, temples and mosques since the beginning. For centuries, people have been damaged by feeling forced to be something they are not. But if a person’s ever going to experience true freedom, peace and love in this life, speaking truth to powers, along with honoring who you are at your core is a must,” he says.

But that did not happen—at least not at first. While he experimented in private sexually with men in high school, Latimer continued to publicly court women. On the outside, everything looked wonderful—and Latimer, deeply involved in the community, was a star. He established the first gospel choir on his college campus and joined a fraternity. But by his third year at Atlanta University, in 1983, the burden of keeping his desires secret led him to attempt suicide. “I was outgoing and popular, but because of what I heard from the pulpit and our culture about what a man is supposed to be, I swallowed all the pills in the medicine cabinet,” he says. During his recovery, Latimer decided to enroll in the army. “My family was like, ‘You done lost your mind,’” he says. “But I thought, ‘I’m going to straighten this sexual thing out. I’m going to go through all this rigorous training and come out a man.’”

However, shortly after arriving at South Carolina’s Fort Jackson for basic training, Latimer made a midnight bathroom trip. “I saw two men doing their thing,” he says. When asked if he dated men while enlisted, he says yes—despite the fact that then, like now, reports of homosexual conduct could result in being discharged. Latimer says he did not encounter discrimination for sleeping with men, though he knew many other gay men and women who were expelled from the military. In 1986, he married a woman and says he was faithful to her for the duration of his military service. (They later split and have been separated for most of the marriage.)

Nine months after getting married, in 1987, Latimer received a letter informing him that a blood donation he had made to the Red Cross tested positive for HIV (his wife is HIV negative). He shared his diagnosis with his commanding officer, and the army soon shipped him off to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, where HIV-positive servicemen were housed in Ward 42. Latimer began counseling critically ill AIDS patients, many of whom had been abandoned by family and friends. It’s a ministry he continues today. “God has always been in me,” he says. “And you see people that are on life’s grim edges who need help from you. It’s just second nature [to me to support people].”

One day, while helping an HIV-positive wheelchair-bound man, Latimer listened to his story of family rejection, friends turning their backs and the church shutting him out. Touched by the man’s story, Latimer wept. While some in the hospital thought he was a volunteer, Latimer eventually told them that he was a patient: “There was no denying the real deal. I’m an HIV-positive black man, part of a population of people who are ostracized and stigmatized. If I deny that, I do myself an injustice.” That thought helped Latimer empower himself. He turned around the thinking in his head and shrugged off the shame. “I said to myself, ‘I am somebody and don’t you let anybody tell you otherwise.’”

But after a year or so of supporting others with HIV/AIDS at Walter Reed, Latimer wondered how much more sickness or death he could witness. “I also began to ponder the response of the church,” he said. “There were so many churches on the streets of Washington, DC. Where were God’s children? There even came a time when I wondered if it was possible that I had spent most of my life as part of something that did not practice what it preached.”

Though the Walter Reed environment was conducive to healing, it could not help Latimer deal with the fact that AIDS was considered a death sentence at the time. “Processing this fact became very difficult,” he says. “I began to self-medicate with alcohol, Quaaludes and marijuana.” Latimer soon left the army and went to Jacksonville, Florida, to pass what he thought would be his last days. He spent the next few years using crack cocaine, somehow managing to stay employed. “My life had shifted to a ‘What does it matter? I am going to die anyway’ mode,” he says of the period. Then, after a drug-filled night, he found himself in tears on the bathroom floor after watching a friend crawl on the carpet looking for pieces of crack. It was then, he says, that God came through loud and clear, saying, as Latimer recalls it, “I am your God. You belong to me. Your problem has been that you have listened to man too long. Hear me! You shall not die, but you shall live to testify my goodness and power. Yes, I’ve called you. For I have a purpose for you.” In that moment, Latimer says, he realized that even though he’d initially been given six months to live, he’d survived years since his diagnosis. “I was stunned to realize so much time had passed,” he says. “It was time to stop wallowing in self-pity,” he says.

Latimer quit crack without the help of rehabilitation services. Nor has his HIV required much medical intervention: In 20 years of living with the virus, Latimer has not experienced a major illness. He credits his family, to whom he disclosed his status after leaving Walter Reed and before his breakdown from drugs, for helping him accept HIV and its treatment. “My family said, ‘If you don’t do it for you, do it for us, because we love you.’” “I felt sorry [for him] and I hated [HIV],” says his mother, Allie Latimer. “But it’s just a disease. Whatever comes around in the family, we all try to live with it. I leave it in the hands of the Lord.”

After getting clean, Latimer enlisted at South Carolina’s Holmes Bible College. It was during this time that he first stood on the pulpit to give testimony, which included the details of his HIV diagnosis and past relationships with men. “I talked about our duty as Christians and told them that God has put me here so you can understand that you have to get past your biases, you’ve got to get past your fear,” he says. Latimer continued to grapple with how his sexuality fit into his religious calling. He was deliberately abstinent while in college, though he does openly date men now. For the past six months, Latimer has been in a monogamous relationship with a man, which he says has not yet become sexual. “I believe that for those who are serious about long-term relationships, it’s necessary for sex not to be in the forefront,” he says. “Sex opens emotional doors that people in the beginning stages of a relationship are not ready for. In both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, it is best to get to know each other first.”

Like many other black men who have sex with men (MSM) who do not identify with a gay culture they perceive as white, he does not call himself gay. “I don’t have to walk around and say ‘I’m gay,’ I’m just Stacey. And I’m a child of God.” Of most churches’ continuing condemnation of homosexuality, he says, “The church would profit greatly by gaining more knowledge around sexuality. Why would God invest so much gift and talent in [people] that God hates so much?”

Latimer was met with love and support by his fellow students at Holmes. After graduation, he began traveling around to African-American churches via organizations including The Balm In Gilead, which is dedicated to improving the church’s response to HIV, and The Clergy Task Force. Every time he has disclosed his HIV status, Latimer says, he has been empowered to live without shame and fear. In 2001, while serving as an assistant to the pastor of a Baptist church helping him establish his AIDS ministry, Latimer was made aware of a petition circulating in the church—one designed to keep him from the pulpit. “They said my HIV status defiled that sacred place,” he recalls. The pastor opposed it, as did many members of the congregation. Still, Latimer decided to step down from that pulpit, so he could remain in the church. “Well, you work better from the inside than the outside,” he says of the decision.

Latimer’s work with The Balm In Gilead eventually brought him to New York City, where he served as coordinator of the Black Church HIV/AIDS Network and for the Unity Fellowship Church. The latter was founded in Los Angeles in 1982 to serve gay, lesbian and transgender African Americans, particularly those dying of AIDS who other churches had abandoned. “It is a very underserved population,” says Latimer. Reverend Valerie Holly, a senior pastor at Unity, says, “The teaching of God and the Bible is about liberating oppressed people. We focus on inclusivity and God being of love, not the exclusivity of more traditional churches.” Thanks to efforts by organizations like The Balm In Gilead and speakers like Latimer, more black churches are realizing they need to take on HIV in their own congregation. Holly says that in the past few years mainstream pastors have started visiting Unity, which provides HIV care and testing, for advice. “Some identify sitting down with us as a struggle; others say that everyone is God’s child and they are not going to pass judgment on anyone,” she says.

Latimer is hardly the only HIV-positive, same-gender-loving reverend. Holly says she knows gay pastors at mainstream black churches—but they are not out to their congregation. “Minister Stacey is a man of God who clearly walks with the belief that God walks with him. He is able to use his own life stories to make people really connect with him.”

Indeed, Latimer works closely with other pastors and faith leaders who have tested positive for HIV. “Before I knew it, my phone line at the Black Church HIV/AIDS Network turned into the ministerial HIV/AIDS counseling line,” he says. Camille Abrahams, director of the Harm Reduction Coalition’s African American Capacity Building Initiative, where Latimer now works full-time helping local departments improve their HIV prevention programs, agrees. “Stacey just has this air about him. At conferences you can’t go far without people stopping him to talk,” she says. “People feel burned out about HIV work. He makes them feel motivated to continue.” The time he spends telling his own story, especially through his evangelical work with his Love Alive ministry, has limited Latimer’s ability to stick around as more than a guest minister. “What’s more important, the truth or your so-called career? My career is my life for God,” he says.

“Our stories, told with sincerity and integrity, carry the power to heal,” he says. “They share wisdom, usher in peace and impart strength.”

And that’s never more apparent than during the final moments of a recent service, when he stands before the congregation with whom he has shared his story. Some in the audience begin to weep. And, finally, Latimer allows himself a moment of release, tears streaming down his smiling face.