1988 – Steve Robenalt sits with his wife of three weeks, Patty, in a Christian conference. It’s his first year working full-time as a Campus Ambassador at Arizona State University, and they’re both excited to learn more about how to serve their students. A staff member at the conference teaches about ministering to people with AIDS. Not relevant to Steve and Patty’s lives, but you never know on a college campus.
The next day, they receive a phone call from Patty’s mother. The words out of her mouth knock the wind out of the newlywed couple: “I have AIDS.”
Steve got saved in a conservative Baptist church at a young age. His faith was lukewarm in high school, but at Arizona State University, he met Ben Joseph, a Missions Door missionary for international students. Ben encouraged Steve to get plugged into a Missions Door college ministry called Campus Ambassadors. There, God began to transform his life in a whole new way. He learned to live like a Christian and served the Lord by reaching students for Christ. He decided to serve with Campus Ambassadors full-time on staff in 1987 and after he graduated, he married Patty, who he met in college.
The news of his mother-in-law’s diagnosis rocked the young couple. They knew almost nothing about HIV and AIDS. Steve faintly remembered his family getting a letter from the surgeon general about AIDS in the 80’s. It wasn’t relevant to them, and they threw it out.
For the next year, Steve and Patty walked alongside her mom throughout the whole process until she passed away in 1989. His mother-in-law was riddled with shame, wondering what others would think of her and more importantly, what God thought of her. The Robenalts were heartbroken.
College to HIV Ministry
Steve and Patty continued to work as Campus Ambassadors, while also working with HIV/AIDS ministries on the side. They kept seeing the same emotions Patty’s mom went through – guilt, shame, secretiveness. The diagnosis would often strain relationships with friends, family, and God. In 1993, they felt the Lord calling them to shift from Campus Ambassadors to full-time HIV/AIDS ministry in Chandler, Arizona. They had full support from Missions Door and called their ministry Compassion in Action, based off 2 Corinthians 1.
For years, they’ve hosted monthly dinners, worship and game nights, and food box drives. Covid has shifted the ministry to food box delivery and small group bible studies. Either way, these community building activities are a lifeline for many with HIV and AIDS.
Misunderstandings and Facts About HIV
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system’s t-cells. It’s spread through sex and blood transfusions. When an HIV-positive person’s t-cells drop below 200, they progress from HIV to AIDS. AIDS is a deficiency in the immune system. Those with AIDS can no longer fight off infections and are prone to rare infections as well. While modern medicine is helping, most people aren’t diagnosed with HIV until they become very ill. There are also some people who are born with HIV because they were born to a mother who was HIV-positive while she was pregnant with them.
There are many individuals with HIV who are working professionals and managing their illness well, but there are lots of HIV-positive people who are on disability. Compassion in Action typically works with the latter. While most come just for the free food, many are looking for an opportunity to connect with others and have a community.
Steve and Patty have met many people who keep their HIV status a deep secret. Many who have told their loved ones are ostracized. One man shared with Steve that he grew up going to church and youth group. He struggled a lot with his identity and in high school, someone of the same sex made a pass at him. He walked in the homosexual lifestyle for seven years and was eventually diagnosed with AIDS. When he tried to go back to church, he felt like the door was closed and God hated him.
Stigma and Compassion
The stigma around HIV and AIDS often has to do with misunderstanding. While it is true that someone who engages in risky sexual behavior is at a greater risk for HIV, not everyone who has HIV lives promiscuously. Steve has met people who contracted HIV from their first sexual encounter. People would ask his mother-in-law if she contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion because they assumed the only other way to get it was by sleeping around.
At the very start of his ministry, Steve would sometimes run into unsympathetic churches. They’d say, “I don’t have a hard time being compassionate towards innocent people. But some people are getting what they deserve.” Steve would respond, “Jesus has the same compassion for those individuals. He died for everyone. There’s no higher ground at the foot of the cross.” Thankfully, most churches today are excited about Compassion in Action.
Working with the Gay Community
Because of their ministry, the Robenalts work with a lot of people in the homosexual lifestyle. They try to meet people where they’re at, meet their needs, and cultivate relationships that lead to gospel conversations. They show God’s grace and love to everyone, remembering that every human being has value and deserves respect because they’re made in the image of God. While they are not affirming of same sex lifestyles, everyone is invited to their bible studies – straight, gay, Christian, or non-believer.
Steve understands that no one can clean themselves up before receiving the gospel. Rather than try to save someone out of homosexuality, he gets them to think about what the bible says about their lifestyle as a whole and helps them see the root of the issue is not just sexual sin, but a heart problem. He’s also gotten to see Christ transform many lives. In the mid 2000s, a husband and wife started coming to get food boxes, and the wife wasn’t interested in God at all. But after regularly attending dinners and game nights, Steve eventually led her to the Lord. Now she passes out bibles on the light rail.
Pray for Compassion in Action
Covid is scary for those with auto-immune deficiencies like HIV and AIDS. Steve knows some people who didn’t go out for a year. Shifting to small group settings has kept the community going and been good for discipleship, but people also enjoyed the big dinners and game nights. Please pray for wisdom and discernment for the Robenalts as they decide if they should bring back the large group activities. Please pray for more volunteers as well because that’s always needed. And of course, pray that Compassion in Action continues to make a difference through the gospel in the HIV/AIDS community in Chandler.
Missions Door is proud to support the Robenalts as they minister to the least of these. Because they know what it’s like to have a loved one with AIDS, this too is a type of indigenous ministry. If you’d like to support Steve and Patty, you can visit their page here.