The International AIDS Conference, the largest gathering of HIV/AIDS researchers, educators, advocates, care-givers, and pastoral workers in the world, is meeting in Washington, DC, this week. It is the first time in over 20 years that the United States has hosted the conference; for many years U.S. immigration policy would not admit people who were HIV+ into the country, so the meeting could not be held here.
Catholics are certainly a presence at the meeting. Last weekend, Catholic Charities USA hosted a pre-conference three-day gathering of Catholics involved in pastoral care and social work with people who have HIV/AIDS. Howard University Divinity School in Washington also hosted a three-day Interfaith Conference on HIV/AIDS issues and faith.
Among those attending all three events were two Catholics from the United Kingdom, Vincent Manning and Adela Mugabo. The pair presented at the Catholic and Interfaith pre-conferences on the Catholic ministry they are doing in the UK with their organization, “Positive Catholics.” Their presentation focused on the need to move from a model of peer support to a model of peer ministry. In a National Catholic Reporter article about the Catholic Charities conference, Manning described this new ministry model as “a fellowship of the weak” :
Manning, of United Kingdom faith-based group Positive Catholics, said ‘stigma and fear produce a silence that isolates and excludes people,’ and the aim of the group is ‘to listen with great care – healing begins when a person feels seen and heard.’ “
The occasion of the International Conference also sparked memories of those who have gone before us and reflections on how far we have come. Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for National Catholic Reporter offered this very poignant description as part of his blog post on the Washington meeting:
“Memory sears. It is painful. It is grounded in experience and, just so, less easily shared. Those of us who lived through the HIV crisis before there was treatment look back on that time with pained hearts. It is as Augustine wrote about the death of his childhood friend: our tears have taken the place of our friends. The emptiness of life without so many friends and colleagues who once filled our lives but died too early from this dread disease, that emptiness remains. At Mass on Sundays, during the Eucharistic prayer, the priest calls us to pray for those who have gone before us, and he usually pauses. I pray first for my Mom, then for my uncles and aunts, and my grandparents, for Fr. Kugler and Msgr. Ellis, and then I start down the list of those lost to AIDS: David, always first because he was my best friend and nary a day has passed since his death that I do not miss his wit and wisdom, Stephen, Damien, Nalty, Bryan, Hooper, Robert, the customer whose name I have forgotten who always had a coterie of friends with him when he came into the restaurant where I worked. I never seem to have time to mention them all before the priest continues with the prayer. As the priest continues, the very next lines in the Roman Canon recall apostles and martyrs: John the Baptist, Stephen, Mathias, Barnabas, Ignatius….The list of my friends who have died, which I am still muttering silently, blends in to naming of the saints. I like that.”
Winters’ post goes on to challenge the gay community, who he feels has re-shuffled their priorities away from HIV/AIDS to political causes such as marriage equality and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He observes:
“With limited resources, financial and political, it seems to me that the fight against HIV, especially because it now disproportionately affects minority populations, should still be the top priority for gay rights groups. One cannot marry if one is dead. One cannot serve openly in the armed forces if one is dead.”
His concluding challenge is to ALL Catholics to continue working for people with HIV/AIDS:
“As Catholics, we cannot abandon the fight against HIV, still less our compassion for those who acquire the disease. As Catholics, we must fight the stigmatization that comes with the disease. As Catholics, our conscience and our attention must be pricked when we see a disease begin to disproportionately affect minority populations. As Catholics, we must fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act which will help make high-quality care available to everyone, not just the rich. As Catholics, called to love of neighbor, and assured that we will be judged by how we respond to the hungry, the stranger, the thirsty, and the ill, we cannot turn our eyes away from this still pernicious epidemic and all the socio-cultural sins it makes manifest.”
Another set of memories comes from an Oxford University Press blog post by Richard Giannone, a retired Fordham University professor who has recently authored a memoir, Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire. Giannone recalls the early days of the epidemic, and its effect on one New York City Catholic parish:
“Though the Catholic church hadn’t been mother to her gay children, some came anyway to the 5:30 afternoon Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. Clothes drooped on emaciated men in their mid-twenties to early forties. Pustules rutted the withered flesh of several. Some sported baseball caps to keep facial lesions shaded out of sight of onlookers. A few men used make-up to screen darkened facial spots. But nothing covered the bones of suffering or muted the sound of sickness from the pews punctuating the words of God from the altar.
“Living in wrack and ruin, these men brought life back into a church that left them for dead. They walked to the Lord’s Table for sustenance, more life. The vitality of their appeal stood out in sharp relief against the lifeless Christianity that vilified their gayness. Such spiritual defiance taught me what I needed to know and need to remember.
“AIDS was our passion. Its agony thrust gay life into the vortex of twentieth-century history. This previously censored truthfulness came to rest in rows of church benches for all to bear gayness in mind as part of providential history. Their perseverance asked me to trust the body. I did.
“At the liturgy, persons with HIV were not seen as the reviled carriers of plague rejected by society. Bodies that were hosts for infections sought the host of sacred healing. Their return to the home that spurned them showed that the divine spirit was far beyond any barrier of separation that humans erected for themselves. The love that dare not say its name howled out from its heart with what voice it had left to reclaim its place in God’s plan. Worship modeled a church and society to which I felt I could belong.”
May such memories, as well as the present witness of those who continue to struggle with the disease, as well as those who work to prevent and cure, as well as care for those affected, spur us on to greater resolve to end the epidemic.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry