When Jacob’s friend invited him to Saddleback Church four years ago, he reluctantly agreed to go. He wasn’t sure what to expect – he’d never attended church before, and if people discovered his true story, what would they think of him? Little did he know, that simple invitation would begin a series of events that would transform his life forever.

Nearly ten years ago, Jacob was given the terrifying diagnosis of being HIV positive. During that time in the state where he lived, there were long wait times for medication. Wanting better health care, he relocated to California, sleeping in truck stops along the way. He took on two jobs and busied himself with life, but eventually, working took a toll on his body. He quit his jobs and settled into a small apartment in Orange County. Daily tasks became a challenge. Loneliness and discouragement set in. And then he got the invitation to Saddleback.

When Jacob first arrived on the Saddleback campus, he did not feel comfortable going in to the worship service, so instead, he sat on the grass outside with his friend. A pastor approached him, welcomed him to church, and stayed to chat with him. As they spoke, the pastor began to tell Jacob about Jesus. Jacob felt an inner desire drawing him to this pastor’s words and decided to make the commitment to accept Jesus into his life. Jacob had no idea how radically his life was about to change. The pastor suggested he get baptized and Jacob told him he’d think about it.

As Jacob gazed across the patio at the people preparing for baptism he decided he didn’t want to wait. He wanted to join them. To Jacob’s surprise, the pastor who’d spoken with him wasn’t the man who baptized him. Instead, it was Pastor Rick Warren himself. As Jacob came out of the water after the baptism, a woman and her family stood nearby. She ran up to Jacob with a smile. “Welcome to the Saddleback family!” she said warmly. He did not understand why a complete stranger was welcoming him into the family. However, it didn’t take Jacob long to discover just what family means around Saddleback Church.

Though Jacob made a decision to follow Christ that day, he still did not feel completely comfortable attending church regularly. One day, while participating at an AIDS walk at Irvine Park, he saw a booth advertising the HIV&AIDS Initiative with Saddleback. “I was confused and angry at first,” Jacob said. He thought the booth was meant to protest those with HIV /AIDS. However, after speaking with the volunteer at the booth, he understood the truth: Saddleback was, in fact, there to support, love and care for those with HIV/AIDS. Jacob had never heard of such a thing. Could a church really support the HIV/AIDS community?

The answer was yes. Jacob began attending Saddleback regularly, and there, he found the community, love and support he’d been looking for. He joined the HIV/AIDS support group and began attending events as often as possible. Soon, he discovered he was not alone. He met others like himself, struggling with the same debilitating disease. He also met others who were not affected by the disease but loved him just the same. He learned more about the Saddleback HIV&AIDS Initiative, which exists to raise awareness, promote prevention, lower the stigma, and love on those who suffer from the disease. Started by Kay Warren in 2004, the Initiative had already made a great impact globally and locally. Now, Jacob was being impacted as well.

When Jacob grew sick and was admitted into the hospital, it was not his close friends or family members who showed up. Instead, his church family stopped by instead. Jacob remained in critical condition in the “scary ward,” a room surrounded by glass to protect him from germs. “I was very sick and had to go into surgery,” Jacob explained. “When I awoke, people from the HIV/AIDS group were there. I didn’t even know some of them. They hung out and prayed for me. It was vulnerable and scary, and I was completely alone, but then they came, and that meant so much to me.”

After Jacob got home from the hospital, people from the church came by to bring him dinner and say hello. “It was so nice to know people cared and to see them showing love,” Jacob said tearfully.

Living with HIV, Jacob faces many challenges daily. “You wake up feeling happy and ready to start the new day. And then you have to take the medication to sustain you,” he explained. “It’s draining.” The medication takes a toll on Jacob’s body. “It is very hard living with HIV,” Jacob said. “Sometimes I feel tired of being sick. It’s like a job to survive day-to-day with this, but the Lord is in my life now, and that makes every day worth living.”

Recently, several Saddleback friends came over to clean Jacob’s apartment for him. They all crammed into his tiny place, sitting around campfire style. They prayed for him, which touched him greatly. “That was huge,” he admitted. “Living with HIV is lonely. I never know what’s next. I value all the support and the fact that people care about someone who is sick. I still can’t grasp that entirely. The love is there in all types of ways.”

Jacob now lives with a service dog, which has been a big blessing to him. When Jacob first learned about the possibility of owning a service dog, he resisted the idea. “I didn’t know if I could love and be responsible for someone else when I had a hard enough time taking care of myself.” But that all changed when Jacob first met and fell in love with his dog. The animal now goes everywhere with him. Together, they tackle stores like Wal Mart and Costco, which can be intimidating for someone with physical limitations. “My dog has changed my life as far as independence goes,” Jacob said. “She’s by my side at all times. We are inseparable.”

Today, four years after setting foot on the Saddleback campus for the first time, Jacob cannot imagine life without the church. “I’ve been able to meet a lot of different people through the church,” he said. “They come up and say, ‘Hi, Jacob! How are you doing?’ Some are part of the HIV/AIDS ministry, and some are not, but they all care.”

Jacob still gets tears in his eyes as he remembers that woman’s kind words upon his baptism: “Welcome to the Saddleback family!” Today, he has indeed found a family at Saddleback Church. “It is so awesome and amazing,” he said. “The fact that my HIV was not a hindrance for me being a Christian and being a part of this church, well… I just don’t have words for that. There is no stigma or judgment here. No one questions me. There are just arms out, embracing me, and big hugs all around.”

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