The only people talking about gay men dying are gay men, and the ones that wish we'd all die. (Bill Kraus, in And The Band Played On)I have to admit to a particularly severe and un-Christian case of envy of those who have been part of the EmergentYS conference in San Diego. As I've followed Dave's running commentary, I've really regretted not being able to be there and experience it myself. (Anybody want to contribute to getting me to the Nashville conference in May?)
I never want to speak on this topic without reflecting on the thirty-one people from my congregation who have died from AIDS...I believe that if you can bring a casket into your sanctuary and speak of people in death, you'd better be ready to bring them into that same sanctuary and speak to them while they are alive. (Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, St. Cloud, MN)
Almighty God, reach out your loving hand to all those who have been both infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. (a suggestion for prayers of the congregation, from Rev. Alberta Ware, of The Balm in Gilead)
But this last Saturday, on the north end of the south side of Chicago, I took part in an amazing gathering at the first-ever HIV/AIDS Workshop for Medical & Religious Professionals here at LSTC. Not only was it a great breakthrough in bringing both medical and religious professionals together to talk about HIV/AIDS, it also was the first clear sign of Christian compassion I've experienced for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA's) outside of the blogging community.
I'm really grateful for the medical professionals - the folks in the trenches - who shared with the religious community a lot of facts (as well as rampant fictions) about HIV/AIDS. I'm not uninformed on the topic - but I learned a lot that morning...not only the terrifying statistics, but mostly about new and old myths about transmission, about new treatments, and about how religious professionals and friends can support people in HIV/AIDS treatment. Really good, really basic stuff that anyone who can come into contact with PLWHA's should have.
But it was Rev. Jeremiah Wright - pastor of the massive Trinity United Church of Christ in south Chicago - who set the tone for the religious-professional portion of the day, declaring, "In this pandemic, the church has created more suffering than hope," and calling for Christians everywhere to be in a ministry of presence and healing to those living with HIV and AIDS.
One awakening that Rev. Wright pointed out was so clear, and so simple, that I was almost ashamed for not realizing it earlier. "So many people believe that education and information can cure homophobia," he said, "but the key part of homophobia is phobia - an emotional imbalance or blockage. It's a disease of the heart...so homophobia cannot be cured simply by intellectualism or information."
Rabbi Edelheit spoke of the shame and stigma of HIV/AIDS - and pointed out that HIV/AIDS caregivers are often branded with the same stigma (don't touch my kids, don't eat off my plates, I don't want to "get it" from you) that the patients themselves suffer. He called each of us to stop treating PLWHA's as simply carrying "the mark of Cain," and to find ways to care, rather than simply cast out (or worse yet, provide lip service from afar, as my friend Rick spotlights so clearly here).
Rev. Alberta Ware, from The Balm in Gilead, said it so clearly: "The HIV stigma shattered the traditional model of caring in the church." If you have cancer, if you have heart disease, and you get sick, folks in the church flock to make sure that you have food, your kids get to school and to church, you name it. Not so with HIV - people were all-of-a-sudden using gloves to shake hands, burning the paper plates that were used by PLWHA's, refusing to visit them at home, or even to sit by them in church. Balm-in-Gilead's booklet, Blessed Are They That Comfort: An Introduction to HIV/AIDS for Black Congregations is worthwhile for non-black congregations, as well. In fact, the whole BalmInGilead website is an invaluable resource for both religious and non-religious folks of all colors and walks.
But for me, the joy of the day was finding openly Christian people who were willing and active in sharing care and compassion with the GLBT community and with the HIV/AIDS community in particular. I'm looking forward to hooking up with these folks, and finding new ways to minister alongside them. And that, to be honest, has been the first light of hope in my life-after-seminary quest in months...for which I give God much thanks.