Sunday, December 1, 2013

World Aids Day Reminds Me of Faces and Names and Real People

(Today is World Aids Day. I don't think I have seen a single mention of this day in any publications I have read. And yet this is far too important a cause to be ignored--even though we have made great strides in helping people with HIV live long lives. 

There are 35.3 million people living with Aids around the world. 
3 million people still die every year from this disease.
Over 65% of those infected do not have access to the drugs that would help.

On this day I think back on all those brave soldiers whom I have known that have struggled valiantly with this disease.
I wrote the following words in a blog piece in 2009. It makes me remember so many who have given so much.


My first encounter with AIDS came about twenty years ago. I was invited back to the first church I ever served in the early sixties. It was a rural congregation about six miles out of town, surrounded by rich tobacco land. They invited me back for a week of preaching. That first Sunday a young man came down the aisle and joined the church. Michael had been in my youth group as a boy thirty years before. After the service he told me he had AIDS. I had never met anyone with AIDS. So I went to see him that week and he told me his story. One of nine children, he always knew he was different. Michael had a hard time finding his way and accepting who he was. And just about the time he had made peace with himself and his family he discovered that he was very sick.

He had come home from the West Coast to Kentucky to die. He was trying to work but he was exhausted most of the time. They baptized Michael the Sunday after he joined the church. I was proud of that little church that reached out and took Michael into their hearts. In less than two months he was dead. But I have thought about Michael, his mother who loved him fiercely and his family and church that stood by him to the end. I realized twenty years ago that if AIDS could come to that little rural village, on a side road, it could touch any community in America.

Two weeks after my encounter with Michael I was invited to participate in a healing service for people with AIDS at the downtown Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee. That night, as the people streamed forward and whispered their requests for healing I was one of the ministers who heard their sad requests. It was a holy moment.  One old man said, “I have a son dying of AIDS and it’s killing me.” One young man told me, “My partner died six months ago and I am very sick—would you pray for me.” A mother leaned forward and said, “My boy is very sick and I don’t know if I can hold out to care for him. It’s hard.” Person after person whispered their needs. Parents, friends, siblings—partners. That evening touched me at some deep level I cannot fully understand.  I saw the human side of this disease.

Little Maggie

The first big challenge with AIDS was when one of our members wanted to bring a little black girl named Maggie to our church nursery. Remember this was eighteen or so years ago. Everybody was scared of AIDS and infection. Here was a challenge: could we put our own children at risk? Could we possibly turn away someone who needed the church? We invited all our children’s’ workers in for a Seminar. A physician, no stranger to our church who worked with the Center of Disease Control came to talk to us about the realities we faced. We learned about Universal health precautions. We learned that with great care Maggie was no threat. Reluctantly our workers agreed and aids came walking into our church.


Months later a member came by and said, “I have this friend who goes to another church. She has a son very sick with AIDS. He is coming back from California to live with her—and she doesn’t think her church will accept him. You think we could do that?” “Hmm,” I thought, “who knows—I would certainly hope we would take them.” She joined the church weeks later. And when her son came home from California furious and angry and his life had been turned upside down. You could tell he was sick just by looking. One Sunday he came to church and people welcomed him. Months later he walked down the aisle one Sunday and said he wanted to join our church.

I didn’t know how people would respond. But my little church opened up its heart to Kevin and his mother. He would live, as I remember about a year and a half. Toward the end he was very sick. The last day of his life his Sunday school class went twelve miles stand around his bed and give him Holy Communion. It was the last food he ever took by mouth.


Since that time many gay people wandered into our church and many stayed. It was not an easy struggle. Over and over I would say that this was an integrity issue and either we welcomed all or we were not a real church. Slowly that congregation rose to the occasion. First we lost Kevin and then Charles. Karron would be next—and then Gary and dear Roy. Since those early days we have made great strides.  The University of Alabama at Birmingham has been on the forefront of  research for HIV/AIDS problems.

Since my journey with AIDS began over twenty years ago we have made much progress. Drugs have been discovered that have prolonged life. I have met many persons who are profiles in courage. I have seen the ugly face of discrimination up close. People who could not let their employers know they were sick and paid costly, costly medical bills out of their own pockets. I have heard stories of parents who turned their backs on their children—leaving them without resources to live or die alone. One prominent family told none of their friends that their son was home sick and when he died no one knew. They were ashamed. No obituary. No funeral service except the four of them. And yet I have seen some members of the most conservative churches reach out and open their hearts to families in great pain. I have seen other people change their minds and hearts. 

We have made great progress—though we have a long way to go.People complain to me sometimes, “AIDS is not the only terminal disease.” And they are right. My brother has battled cancer. My mother and father both died of heart disease. My mother-in-law was taken by Alzheimer’s. There are a multitude of killing diseases out there. But we are to respond with care and love with whatever the disease and whatever the condition. I do know this—I have seen the face of AIDS a multitude of times these last twenty years and the lenses through which I see the world will always be different. 

1 comment:

  1. i had a precious 16 year old student who had the same boyfriend for 3 years shyly show me the pamphlet on aids when she returned from the counselor's office. it broke my heart. she lived to her mid-20's. what a terrible loss