Hugging, crying and holding hands, utter strangers linked only by AIDS supported each other in a two-hour ceremony for the 15th annual observance of World AIDS Day.

About 150 people attended the ceremony Sunday at the Trinity Episcopal Church on the corner of Temple and Chapel streets. The ceremony included a proclamation by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. describing the problem of AIDS in New Haven and recognizing World AIDS Day in the city.

The evening started somberly, as the church filled up with people to the sound of slow organ music piped from a keyboard in the corner. At the door, eventgoers received various pieces of AIDS literature, carnations, stickers and AIDS awareness pins.

The real purpose of World AIDS Day, organizers said, is to promote awareness while remembering those who have fallen to the disease.

Committee co-chairwoman Carla Jones said community meetings like New Haven’s would “bring compassion, hope, solidarity and understanding” around the world.

The ceremony brought a number of speakers to the church and finished with traditional communal rituals. Speakers included Ed Leduc, an AIDS survivor who has lived since his diagnosis in the late 1970s; Elder Ron Hurt, who offered prayers and a benediction; and Elsie W. Cofield, who has dedicated her retired life to AIDS activism in New Haven.

Leduc spoke about how, with increased education throughout the decades, perception of AIDS has changed the lives of those who live with the disease.

“I had to wait so many years to be able to speak in a public building,” Leduc said, adding that prejudices and ignorance about AIDS shut him out of almost everything through fear.

Hurt’s words lent a more colorful atmosphere to the gathering. At one point, he urged the audience to “welcome the spirit of Christ with a hand clap” leading up to a moment of silence to commemorate AIDS victims.

Keynote speaker Cofield, a 78-year-old woman who taught public school in Virginia for 31 years, said she was inspired by a Yale Divinity student to take up the cause of AIDS in the black community. She said she was knowledgeable only about the Bible, which would be the basis for her remarks.

When Jesus came down from the mountain, Cofield said, crowds followed him wherever he went. At one point, a leper came before him and knelt — and Jesus stretched out his hand and cured him.

“In those days, lepers had to walk the street saying ‘Unclean! Unclean!'” Cofield said.

She described AIDS as a modern equivalent of leprosy and said people treat AIDS victims as if they too were unclean out of a failure to understand the disease.

“People in general don’t want to be bothered by people with AIDS,” Cofield said.

Adding to the gospel feel of the entire evening, all audience members were asked to file one by one and deposit their carnations into vases at the front of the chapel, as Nicholas Gonsalvas, Miriam Rodriguez, Jackie P. and Sylvia Sanders read out the names of New Haven AIDS victims. Audience members then called out names of their own loved ones who died from the disease.

The meeting was followed by a candlelight vigil around the Green and a light memorial dinner in the church basement.

As activists gathered at the church, demonstrators throughout the United States and across the globe marked the day with their own ceremonies and events.

In Southern African countries, activists expressed hopes that the region, which has the highest rate of HIV positive people on the planet, can slow the spread of the disease. Events were also held in Cuba, Brazil, Peru and several other countries. In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, about 250 people, many wearing red ribbons and some carrying flowers, gathered at the National AIDS Memorial Grove to remember those who have died from the disease and hear messages of hope for a cure.

–The Associated Press contributed to this story

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