Today is World AIDS Day. We celebrate the progress made in the past twenty-something years educating people about this public health issue. We remember those who died before we knew much about the disease and those who died because health care wasn't available to them. We remember friends, colleagues and family who died from a disease which was once considered to be "shameful".
Down here, when I began to hear about AIDS cases, I started reading about the disease. I found out that a friend at the newspaper resigned her reporting job to work with a tiny agency trying to help AIDS patients. When I went to see her, I was stunned by how much of her time was taken up with reassuring everyone and trying to protect the privacy of her clients.
If you want a "hot button" ministry, find out what no one wants to talk about, what scares people and where "nice" people will not go. I decided to be intentional support for her the other staff. I wouldn't be allowed to have contact with the clients because of privacy issues and the fear the clients felt towards religious people.
People who knew I did this were not happy. They accused me of putting my young children in jeopardy because I could bring the disease home. They wondered why I would associate with people with AIDS.
I wasn't being brave. Really, I just thought that if something happened in our community that clergy needed to be there. Most male clergy didn't want to have contact because of the stigma of being thought of as gay. We didn't have but a few women clergy and I don't know where they were because I didn't know them.
I led a support group for HIV people and their caregivers. I cooked dinner at home for the support group and carried it to the building where we met. The clients were hungry, lonely and paranoid about privacy. They were angry, afraid and bitter that the world around them spent more time condemning them for their disease than showing compassion about their illness.
Before the cocktail drugs, my clients wasted. I asked the board of the sponsor group for pillows for the clients to sit on so they could be comfortable. I brought candles, flowers and homey decorations for our meeting room.
I was asked to do funerals for client after client. Many didn't have pastors so I became their pastor, to the extent that they would allow me. Looking back, I wonder how we all stood the months and months of deaths.
I watched clients learn to monitor their illness and become drug and diet experts. I stand amazed at the bravery of all those I knew then.
Remember that this all took place with a wall of privacy around them. The disease was horrible but the public shaming made everything worse.
When the protease inhibitor drugs came, my clients began to hope. They stopped wasting and developed big stomachs. Women began to come to the agency in larger numbers. Couples, teens and startled "regular" guys poured in.
When I began my work (unpaid, unnamed and not sponsored by my religious group), testing for HIV took months. This meant that the disease grew wildly while people waited for test results. Now, you can be tested and get the results in one day.
Then, it was almost impossible to get African American pastors involved because they would not consider that anyone in their church might have the disease. The 'phobia was too much for them. Now, the local World AIDS Day service is held in a Black church. The African American pastors are knowledgeable, compassionate and helpful.
Everything is so much better now. Amazingly better. I can't believe the improvements. The crisis isn't solved because new cases of AIDS happen. There is never enough money for all the need. Ignorance exists still.
Being with a marginalized community as an observer, friend and learner changed my life. The ministry I had in those early years of the disease blessed me in ways I can't express.
Mr. C. says I don't talk about stuff I've done because I don't value it. He may be right. It seems self-serving to discuss this here but the post isn't about me but about how the world has changed. And, how grateful I am to have known people who stopped being afraid of church-preachers-God because they let me into their lives.
Now I'm not sure if I should publish this post. Let me click the button quickly before I change my mind.