Southern Gospel group The Hoppers will perform at a special concert featuring Ryan White’s mother, Jeanne White Ginder.

The shelves on Rosedale Infectious Diseases’ emergency food pantry were getting empty. With a weak economy and the holidays in sight, the HIV/AIDS clinic’s manager, Dale Pierce, and Rosedale physician Frederick A. Cruickshank decided it was time to ramp up their fundraising efforts.

“We started thinking of a way we could incorporate an activism piece, a holiday piece and also fill the shelves for a good six to 12 months,” Pierce says.

And, that’s when it hit them: What about a concert?

They’ve put their plans in motion and will be presenting a special holiday benefit on Dec. 11 with North Carolina-based Southern Gospel group The Hoppers and Jeanne White Ginder — activist and mother of 1990 AIDS victim Ryan White — for whom the pantry is named.

Pierce says he didn’t know want to expect when he first reached out to The Hoppers. Nationally recognized, award-winning and Southern Gospel community favorites, The Hoppers have also worked closely with gospel legend Bill Gaither. Needless to say, HIV/AIDS patients and LGBT people aren’t the first groups of folks one might think of as fans.

“I reached out to them and said this is what we are doing,” Pierce explains. “It was a booking; they were going to take it. But the next thing I said was, ‘Let me explain. What we are doing, this is not your demographic. There will be a lot of gay and lesbian people in attendance.”

Pierce says Claude Hopper, the group’s father and founder, took a long pause and asked, “Tell me, son, exactly what the money is going for?”

Pierce told Claude how his clinic’s pantry shelves were getting empty, and how they provided basic canned foods and dry staples to those in need.

“If you came in with your family and needed food, you would leave with a bag of groceries to feed your family for the night,” Pierce told Claude.

If you go

An Evening of Hope and Inspiration Featuring The Hoppers With Jeanne White Ginder Sponsored by Rosedale ID and Kerr Health Dec. 11, 7 p.m. McGlohon Theatre 345 North College St., Charlotte Tickets, $20. 704.372.1000.

The Gospel singer’s response was enthusiastic: “Son, we’ll be there,” he said.

Pierce sees the concert as an opportunity to build bridges. To his knowledge, the holiday concert and fundraiser will be among one of the first times a Southern Gospel group of The Hoppers’ caliber has stepped up on their own and offered their talent for an HIV/AIDS-related cause.

“Most of them won’t touch it,” Pierce says. “There is still that stigma with HIV/AIDS and the Christian community. We’re breaking down the wall a few bricks at a time.”

Since the 1980s, the anti-gay stigma attached to HIV/AIDS has waned, especially in recent years. Leading Christian evangelists like Rick Warren and gospel groups like Jars of Clay have reached out with their own efforts targeting the disease and its toll across the globe, particularly in Africa.

Pierce says such humanitarian efforts are becoming more commonplace, even as prejudice persists.

“I’ve been in the business for a long time, and personally I’ve been positive for 13 years,” he says. “In those years, I’ve seen a change in the tide, but we’re still in the Bible Belt and there is still that stigma. We’re hoping things like this will enable the message from both sides to get across in a very comfortable way for people.”

That message, Pierce passionately explains, is vital, especially in a time when younger generations unfamiliar with the personal tragedies of the 1980s continue to contract the virus at astounding rates. He says more awareness and education, coupled with courageous leadership and vision, is the only way to end the crisis.

“Do we all need to dust off our ACT-UP T-shirts and banners and get out there in the street and start raising the flag again? I think we do,” Pierce says. “Federal and state dollars are getting cut. It’s not in the public forefront anymore.”

Pierce, who will serve as the concert’s master of ceremonies, is hopeful the concert will strengthen Rosedale’s ability to continue funding its food pantry. He also hopes it starts a much-needed, community-level discussion on prevention and education.

He says, “If we reach just one family that goes home and around the kitchen table starts a dialogue with their teens or in their church or neighborhood and that that would start to blossom into other groups, that will be a greater event for us.” : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.