My children, now edging up towards 30 years old, don’t remember what it was like. Some in their generation might have a sense from the musical “Rent.”
When people just began dying of this new disease AIDS. Or earlier, when there was this illness that was being recognized, not yet diagnosed, but was already an occasion for much fear and misunderstanding. Or later, when in public we could recognize people who were positive by how they looked, the physical symptoms of the infection. The famous and the unknown alike. Names and stories and rumors.
And all those patches on the quilt that grew to cover the mall in Washington. And mothers and lovers of lost young men standing by in tears.
The fear and the horrible discrimination. I remember a young woman in the late 80’s furious, “why does there have to be specific memorial to those with AIDS at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine?” “Because there are that many young people dying,” I tried to explain.
That scene from the movie Philadelphia where Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett is asked to unbutton his shirt on the witness stand to reveal the lesions from his kaposi sarcoma.
The heroics of ACT UP and their street-theater protests insisting, this disease, its treatment and cure will not be ignored because it’s precieved as a cross queers and addicts have to bear.
I was young and married, but my best friend was gay. He assured me he’d be fine: “It only happens to men who don’t take care of themselves: you know, the guys who stay out in the clubs all night.”
But when I was a seminarian at an Episcopal Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, it was happening to almost everyone. Well, to too many young gay men at St. Michael’s. They’d finally found a welcoming church home, where they belonged alongside of families with young children and blue-haired older ladies. Until everyone started getting sick. Folks were afraid to show up at church. Who next was to lose weight. Or end up in the hospital. I remember Christopher, Scott, Jeff, Bill, Jeff, Alan, Dan, Mark. And their glorious, brave caregivers in those days.
In East Harlem, as a young pastor, the disease was again prevalent, though often with a different face. It still included gay men, but it also plagued people who weren’t. Those who had been intravenous drug users. And their partners. There folks with AIDS weren’t all young or male. I remember Diane and David, Milagros and Alan, Patty, Sinbad, Leroy, Gilberto and Gail.
A lot has changed in 30 years. Medications now enable people to live with AIDS rather than die of it. To the public, it’s almost so invisible, it may seem to have disappeared.
But it hasn’t. In fact, in some parts of the world, like sub-Saharan African, the disease often still plays out as it did in the U.S. in the late 80’s, but at much higher infection rates. Worldwide, it is estimated that as many as 34 million people have HIV.
And it is still very real for people among us living with HIV, even when hardly no one knows. I’m always amazed how many people tell me they are positive. And of their fears for their health, and their experience of the stigma.
Church, please remember: though its primary transmission pathways — sex and drug use — are often associated with shame, it’s just a virus. Not a punishment. Not a label. But an opportunistic virus that is looking for humans to colonize and use as a host.
And though the situations for many are unimaginably improved, there’s still this disease. And prejudice. And people’s lives being curbed because of either or both.
But we’re within hitting range. In 2011, a United Nations summit on HIV and AIDS set as a goal “getting to zero” by 2015: zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, and zero stigma and discrimination.
Like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, maybe Old First needs set aside space — at least figuratively — in our church for such a healing effort and for all those whose lives are affected in the meantime.
~ Could we be bold and caring enough to say outright and simply: most people have sex some time, and when they do, safe sex precautions are about caring for your partner, yourself and the larger world?
~ Could we be advocates for funding for research and treatment, especially as both are threatened on the financial cliff our government is poised on. Government funding for AIDS is particularly important for those who otherwise may go untreated.
~ Could we make it part of our Christian commitment to get past stigma, prejudice and judgement? Sex is one way that humans relate. And drug use, well, though it is often disastrous for the users… a certain percentage of the population always seems to suffer addiction and abuse. Can we call them towards self-responsibility and still care for them when they fall short? Can we not see that people are more and matter more than behavioral labels or HIV status indicate? As Christians, do we have any choice?
~ Could we promise to continue thinking and praying on this because it affects brothers and sisters who are precious, and God’s whole world… not just once a year on Dec. 1’s World AIDS day. No, could we speak with one another openly and work together honestly on how the church can say “no” to disease and “yes” to life and people?
See you in church,