SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- They were walking corpses, the once-beautiful men who dragged themselves to pray at the Metropolitan Community Church, draping their gaunt, lesion-covered bodies across the pews.
During each sermon, the Rev. Jim Mitulski would survey his Castro District congregation, wondering whom he would have to bury next. In all, he presided over about 500 funerals of AIDS victims.
Now battling HIV himself, Mitulski understands better than most why infection rates are rising again among some gays. He hopes his own life story can serve as scripture to others trying to prevent new infections.
"I can summarize it in three words: People make mistakes. You can use that as an insight to beat people up with it or to work with them on it," he said.
Mitulski, 43, who works for the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center in San Francisco, said World AIDS Day, Saturday, is a good time to reflect on a past filled with death, and hope that another generation can be spared.
The signs haven't been encouraging. In San Francisco, HIV infections among gay men have more than doubled in the past four years.
AIDS has killed 22 million people worldwide and left 36 million others facing a death sentence since it was discovered in 1981. About 18,000 of the deaths have been in San Francisco.
"Saturday, all day, was funerals. That's what we did," Mitulski said.
Mitulski was ordained in 1983 in New York at one of more than 300 Metropolitan Community Churches that cater to gays and lesbians.
Fresh out of Columbia University with only an undergraduate degree in religion, the 23-year-old from Royal Oak, Mich., held the hands of some of the nation's first dying AIDS patients.
"There wasn't a lot of time for reflection, and there wasn't a way to identify who had HIV and who didn't. They weren't even sure how it was transmitted," he said.
After five years of watching victims waste away, Mitulski said God called him to preach in San Francisco.
"He took that position in San Francisco during the absolute worst period of the epidemic," said activist Cleve Jones, who started the AIDS quilt project. "Many of us fled. I fled when I got sick, but he stayed."
Mitulski said he kept his spirits up by also presiding over gay weddings -- ceremonies only his predominantly gay church would perform. He smiles remembering how the words "in sickness and in health" and "till death do us part" took on different meanings.
By the early 1990s, Mitulski said, the death and dying began to overwhelm him.
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