Saturday, December 01, 2007

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.


Purechristianithink said...

Thank you for all you did--and for all the others that stepped into the breach early in this crisis.

Hold in prayer all those pastors and church folk in Africa for whom addressing this issue is still stigmatized and controversial.

cheesehead said...

Just another reason among all the others that I adore you.

I'm so glad you wrote this, and clicked that button before you changed your mind.

thankyoudarlin said...

I think we all have moments when we think that what we do isn't important. Acknowledging the significance of your ministry helps me acknowledge mine - thank you.

Quotidian Grace said...

I'm glad you pressed that button. Your ministry is VERY important. You've blessed me and others by sharing it with us. Thank you.

Littlemankitty said...

What an awesome story. You're the bomb.
PPB & her entourage.

revmutha said...

You rock. You're my hero.

Songbird said...

I'm grateful for you, your ministry and your life.

Cathy said...

what everyone else said and even more - you are the best!

Sue said...

Thank you for this post. You are amazing indeed.

I worked with our local AIDS advocacy agency in the late 80s, so I experienced a lot of the same stigma. I'm glad things have changed, at least to some extent.

On the other hand, our provincial government just cut funding for an important program of AIDS education.


Thanks again.

zorra said...

Thank you so much for posting this--and for being obedient to the Spirit and stepping up to the plate at a time when few would.

1-4 Grace said...

Thanks for all you ahve done and continue to do. Although I totally hate the hoopla with the "catch Phrase" WWJD?, I am so glad you did what Jesus would do.
Guess the reason I hate the braclet, tees and caps is because the people that typically wear them are not people who practice it too well. For them, doing what Jesus would do means they hang with the "right" crowd, dont do "bad" things and look down on those who do.
If we take it literally, Jesus was hangin with the "wrong" crowd, proclaming a message of peace and hope (ADVENT WORDS!!!!) to them and never looking down on them.
Yes, Cass, you are my superheroine and I adore you. Thanks for trully folowing WWJD. You are a rock star babe!!!!!!!!

The Simpleton said...

I'm grateful that you took the chance and hit the button--beyond giving me even more respect for you (if that's even possible), it reminds me that change occurs in incremental ways. A pastor quietly ministers to the sick and the outcast, and little by little other people are willing to do that too. Thus the Gospel is proclaimed. The change you report has to do with you; you do see that, right?

Presbyterian Gal said...

What a great blessing your early ministry in this was St. C.

The disease is horrid enough. The stigma makes it exponentially worse. Thank the Lord it's better now. But still so much to do. Especially in Africa.

Katherine said...

Thanks be to God for progress, healing, and prophetic ministers.

Kathryn said...

Hugs and thanks for all you do and are - and prayers, too, that those struggling with AIDS in the 2/3 world may also find people to share Christ's love and compassion with them.
I'm so glad you posted.

Mary Beth said...

This just blows me away. You are awesome, and what a gift you give us in sharing it.

love you. really.

Reverend Dona Quixote said...

Thank you, St. Casserole

Deb said...

Before 9/11 I was involved in a ministry to HIV/AIDS here in Maryland. The stories... the heartache... the people who were hurt by their churches, their "friends" and their pastors. It is enough still to put me into tears.

Time pushes that emotion away after a while. You brought it back, along with memories of some very wonderful people...