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What's Spirit Got To Do With It?

A Body Positive Teleconference
Moderated by Valerie Michele Hoskins

July 1998

In these times when wellness, alternative, and holistic therapies are being taken so seriously by our society, it's no surprise that the third component of the mind, body, and spirit trilogy has been taken seriously. People who are HIV-positive become interested in pursuing strengthening the spirit, especially when the mind and body are under assault by the virus.

Body Positive invited spiritual leaders to discuss the impact of spirituality on people living with HIV. The participants are: Rev. Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, a church that ministers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, but is open to anyone; Darlene Cheek, the black church HIV resource center coordinator for the Balm In Gilead, a nonprofit national organization that works through black churches to help stop the spread of HIV in African American communities; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York, the world's largest gay and lesbian synagogue; and Elliot Rivera, a spiritualism santero.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum  
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum
BP: How are spirituality and religion different?

Pat Bumgardner: In my opinion, spirituality is about the quest for a person's truest or deepest self: the heart or the source of our identity. So it's kind of this journey or quest. Religion doesn't necessarily have to be different from or at odds with that. Ideally, religion facilitates it.

Elliot Rivera: In my experience, spirituality is different. People are searching. They are in the quest, but are connecting their experiences from their past to the present they're in right now. In religion, a person is dealing with a God or a deity; whereas in spirituality, it can be an ancestor or something else in which you can believe. In the way in which I was brought up, religion was very strict. You had to follow the book regarding God and the saints.

Sharon Kleinbaum: I have come to a place in my life where I reject a dichotomy between spirituality and religion, and I think that many of our people are more comfortable with the word and language of spirituality than the word and language of religion. This is because organized religion has represented so much abuse and pain to people, that people who are seekers are more comfortable with language that is not similar to the language we heard growing up -- language that was often very painful as gay and lesbian young people or adults. Ultimately, it's a language issue. Hopefully, it's the same thing.

The concept that a spirit exists separate from the corporeal world comes from the Greek period when a distinction began to be made between the physical and the spiritual. In the Jewish tradition, we reject the concept that the spirit and the body are two distinct entities. Instead, in Hebrew, there is one word that we use for soul and for body.

What it all comes back to is Pat's comment about seeking to find the essence of who we are. We have different voices, different faith communities, and different traditions in which to do that. Ultimately, it's about some kind of connection with the greater power that exists in the universe. This connection has been identified by different faith communities in different ways, but a common denominator is a human soul that exists in each of us.

Darlene Cheek  
Darlene Cheek
BP: Is the need for spiritual guidance or healing for an HIV-positive person any different than it is for someone who is not positive, or who is living with a different illness?

Darlene Cheek: I don't necessarily think that it has to be different. It has become different, based on what Sharon just said, about the pain that has been encountered by people who are HIV-positive and or have been labeled as gay and lesbian or whatever. The pain has been so great that it takes on a different type of healing or the need for a different type of healing. But, no, I don't think that there should be a difference in the spiritual guidance that one receives based on any kind of illness. Spiritual guidance is just that, spiritual guidance. Period.

PB: I agree. Essentially, I don't think the need is different. However, there are factors that, in a sense, exacerbate the situation and sometimes accelerate a person's growth process. People in this world who are ostensibly healthy take a lot for granted, and sometimes don't feel any need to look at loss, change, aging, or death issues with the same kind of passion as a person who is immediately facing these situations does. So the answer to the question is no, with individual situations that present an exception to the general rule.

SK: I agree with what's been said. One way that things are different, but not necessarily unique to the gay community, concerns HIV transmission through sexual activity. For the gay community, the issue of sexuality is deeply connected to HIV status: particularly, how it will impact living their lives as sexual beings in our society in positive and healthy ways. When someone who is gay has issues about sexuality and is confronting HIV, they may face a deep spiritual crisis. It's important that these issues be dealt with directly, clearly, and openly by whoever is providing spiritual guidance. People who are engaged in high-risk behaviors within other groups may also have needs unique to them.

BP: When people come to you for guidance or healing, what exactly are they expecting or wanting? Are they specific about their spiritual needs?

ER: When people come to me, they are usually confused about my practice. Many non-Latinos or non-African Americans who come to me are unfamiliar with spiritualism which is what I practice. So, they're really not sure what they're looking for. What I do when I speak to people is to explore some of their past and present life experiences with spirituality. First, I hear about their painful experiences with religion -- the things we spoke of earlier. After I've dealt with that we move into the healing process. Their expectations begin to change when they realize that they are not dealing with painful religious practices or doctrine from their past with spiritualism.

It's about healing themselves from within -- from the losses they have experienced. Many people who are HIV-positive or living with other diseases are more concerned about the people they have lost, those who have already died. They are carrying so much pain from the past, and this pain must be dealt with as part of the process before we can move on further. The process can be lengthy, and their expectations may change throughout the process as it goes along.

DC: When people call The Balm in Gilead, they've either just discovered that they are positive or a loved one is positive. They want to know what the disease is all about. Sometimes they just want to talk it out, to have somebody listen to them. Sometimes they want someone to pray with them. It varies and, as Elliot just said, we have to meet that need however it is presented. We start at the starting point and branch out from there. Often, there is a lot of pain, shame, and stigma involved that they've placed on themselves. Then they start thinking about what other people are going to place on them.

BP: Has the need for spiritual support dropped off or grown since protease inhibitor use began? In other words, prior to the advent of these new therapies, many people expected to die, and were preparing to die in the near future. How is this affecting people who are HIV-positive and those who are negative but involved with them?

PB: Well I don't experience any decline in people coming for support, guidance, healing, help, or any of those kind of things. The question is a little bit difficult for me because the perspective we take at MCCNY is that, in some sense, everybody is preparing to die. But, in another sense, all of us are seeking to live life as fully as we can live. It's the latter perspective that we emphasize here and people coming in for spiritual direction are pursuing it. Whether the protease inhibitors are working for them or not, usually people who end up here are seeking to live their lives as fully as they can live them. This need doesn't change regardless of their health status.

ER: I've conducted many workshops for an organization that provides healing seminars around the country. Over the last two years, fewer and fewer people have attended these retreats. The numbers aren't as big as they used to be. I began to question why the attendance diminished, and came up with a personal conclusion. I believe that some people who are taking protease inhibitors have stopped their spiritual quest, or have gone as far as they wanted to in that quest.

On the other hand, in my private practice, more people seem to be coming to me because they are living longer and better. Better in terms of their health and they want to continue that growth. They want to reach a spiritual peak, a peak within that will help them live in better harmony with themselves and the medications they're taking. They want the holistic mind, body, and spirit experience.

SK: I'm very moved by what everybody is saying, and I totally agree. The other thing that I see (that I see with many life crises of different kinds), is that HIV is often the wake-up call. HIV-positive status functions as a wake-up call for people to examine their lives in ways they never have before. I've seen many people go through the process of seriously examining life and thinking about what it means to live, to grapple with the fact that we are all mortal. An HIV-positive diagnosis forces people who would otherwise try and ignore that profound reality to confront it.

Then there's the protease inhibitors phenomena that has reversed the closure process for some people who have left the workforce: people who retired early, sold life insurance policies, and made financial decisions based on a short life span. These people have to face the possibility that they might have another 40 or 50 years of life ahead of them when they had expected to die imminently. This situation has created another state of spiritual crisis for some people. They've had to reexamine what it means to re-embrace life after having already begun the process of emotionally letting go.

DC: In the African American community, the spiritual support is the basis of who we are. In most African American homes, people were raised in the church, in the spiritual community. Church support is essential. Protease inhibitors have not changed that. The need for church, for spiritual support is still basic for the African American community.

Elliot Rivera  
Elliot Rivera
BP: Are the alternative therapies being widely used today considered spiritual tools? Which ones would fall under the category of spiritual tools, and why?

ER: Reiki, for example, deals a lot with energy, with concentration, with meditation. In my practice, I can incorporate it with my hands on work. All the alternative therapies -- acupuncture, herbalogy are strong tools, and are all very spiritual. If I'm prescribing herbs, I talk to my client about the herb: the life of the herb, it's healing qualities, it's energies, and the spirituality of that particular flower or plant.

PB: I try to encourage people to think of the different therapies they pursue, whether it's a Western-type medicinal practice or what we're calling alternative therapies here, in a spiritual sense. Alternative therapies can be used or pursued as spiritual disciplines. For example, there are people on protease inhibitors who are affiliated with MCCNY who meditate before they take their medication. Anything that promotes wholeness has the potential to be used in a spiritual way or to be a spiritual tool.

BP: What rituals or practices would you suggest for people who want to attain that trinity of a healthy mind, body, and spirit? For instance, should a person pray on a daily basis, meditate on a daily basis, speak to a spiritual representative regularly, ask for assistance and protection from angels or ancestors, read literature, etc.?

SK: What I encourage people to do is to figure out for themselves what are the necessary components to having a rich spiritual life. I offer myself as a guide to help people figure out what will work best for them to uncover the spiritual truths of their own lives. No one person can be the answer for another person, and the most I can hope for as a spiritual guide is to help somebody uncover for themselves what it will be.

For some people, it will be a very active prayer life. For other people, their spirituality will best be experienced by actively helping and supporting others, by reaching out beyond themselves. For other people it will be through music or dance or art or mathematics. My task is to help people break through their own barriers to find out what's going to help them lead the most deeply meaningful spiritual life.

PB: I agree with Sharon that the task of the spiritual guide is to help the individual person discover their personal path and methodology. There are some general things that I encourage people to do. For example, I try to help them find a way to pray and, as Sharon said, there are many ways to do that. My belief is that daily prayer, that showing up and actively practicing your methodology, has an effect on our health mentally, physically, and emotionally.

I encourage people to pursue spiritual reading, and I encourage them to find a way to give of themselves and the resources they have. This is a very important spiritual discipline, no matter what constitutes a person's belief system.

BP: I think that the way that people pray, and the way they perceive they should pray is interesting. I know people who say that they can't pray because they don't want to get down on their knees. People still think of prayer as a "get down on your knees" proposition to be effective. Usually, I don't get down on my knees. I have conversations with my higher power throughout the day where I'm conversing with a friend and making requests.

PB: You've discovered a way of doing what we were initially talking about. We were talking about spirituality as a quest for your truest self and being able to connect to the heart or the source of who you are. You've found a way to do that in what you call conversation. Good for you. If that connects you, then you should pursue it.

My path is different. It isn't that I don't pray, as you say, conversationally, but the heart of my prayer life is more focused on the discipline that I call listening and just kind of abiding in the presence of God. And I think that's what Sharon was talking about. You have to help people discover what's their way of connecting.

ER: I agree with everything that everyone has said. However, one of the practices that I encourage among my practitioners, is meditation. I teach them how to meditate if they don't know how. It's surprising to me how many people don't know how to meditate and breathe. The ritual that I encourage people is to learn is how to breathe with intention. It's an automatic response that we do all the time but not with intention. When we breathe with an intention to meditate, our heart rate lowers so that we can begin the process of relaxing. After a person has achieved a relaxation state, I begin some visualizations to let them work through what works best for them.

Rev. Pat Bumgardner  
Rev. Pat Bumgardner
BP: If you know an HIV-positive person who is having unprotected sex with people, do you feel it's your responsibility to try to get them to be tested or to practice safer sex?

DC: It's my responsibility period as another human being if I see someone that's in danger to try and warn them against that danger. That's who I am. If I see that someone could be harmed in any way, then I feel a personal responsibility to try to help that person not to get harmed. Having unprotected sex could be harmful: it could be deadly.

PB: I preach a lot about safer sex on the pulpit because I feel that I have a responsibility to our people -- especially to young people who may think that the day and age of AIDS is over or it isn't as dangerous as it once was to be out there. I feel a responsibility as a moral leader, as a spiritual leader to do what I can to maintain our health and keep life safe for all of us.

BP: Does any one group come to you for spiritual guidance more than others?

DC: Not a specific group. Because we work within the church most of our callers are people from churches or people who have family members who are in church. So that would be only the specific group. As a rule, we get calls from all over, and from everybody.

ER: Basically, the population that comes to me are Latinos and Latinas, both gays and lesbians, and many of their parents. I get very small groups of men who have sex with men who don't identify as gay. This group is very small; most of them come from the Caribbean. Consulting with a spiritual advisor is a prominent part of the Caribbean culture.

PB: Primarily, men tend to make appointments with me. I sometimes wonder if lesbians have had bad experiences in churches, and perhaps, are more "churchphobic" than gay men.

SK: Obviously, the people I see are primarily Jewish, although the range among the Jewish community is huge. I get calls from ultra-orthodox Hasidic men who won't use their real names or leave a phone number, and would not use the word gay but absolutely engage in sex with men. They are reaching out and they're not sure what they're looking for. They just want to make contact. Sometimes they'll have one conversation with me or somebody else on staff here and we'll never hear from them again.

BP: Do you provide other services to people who are HIV-positive besides spiritual guidance, or do you work in collaboration with other individuals and groups?

SK: Because we're in New York City, the range of support services is immense. We're fortunate and blessed to be able to refer people to superb various kinds of programs. We work very hard to be aware of and knowledgeable about the many kinds of programs that already exist so we're not duplicating things with our limited resources. So, we don't do buddy or meal programs, but we do have an extensive visitor program where members of the congregation visit and maintain contact.

PB: We work hard on our referral system, but we also run a fairly extensive food pantry program that has four ministry areas in it. One specific ministry area is a grocery program for people living with HIV and AIDS. People register for that program. They come by appointment and can come as often as weekly to get groceries.

ER: I do a lot of referrals. Again, we have such vast resources in the city that we'd be crazy not to utilize them. I have worked in the past with Lincoln Psychiatric making new referrals to them or accepting referrals from them

DC: We don't see clients in-house. We deal with churches and the issues that come up within the church about educating them about HIV and AIDS. As everyone else has said, New York has so many great resources.

BP: What obstacles exist to more spiritual and religious resources being sensitive and responsive to the needs of people who are HIV-positive? What can be done to improve the situation?

DC: One obstacle is a lack of education. People assume that they know what HIV and AIDS is all about. They assume that everyone who has it is gay, and that it's not affecting our community when, in actuality, it's killing our community at increasingly high rates. People aren't aware of this. The Balm in Gilead's task is to educate people, to give them that knowledge, to help the church to understand what their congregation members and families are going through when HIV is in their lives.

PB: The obstacle is not so simple as assuming people are gay; it's the judgment that's attached to that. Mainline denominations in the United States have taken a major step backwards concerning their position on what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and also their position on what it means to live with any kind of illness. They've resurrected judgments that sa there is something wrong with you. Those of us who are out there in the front lines working with people need to become more and more vocal about gay being good, just as good as any other sexuality. We need to assert that we are who we are by the grace and design of God, that nobody gets ill because God is punishing anybody. People get ill because of viruses or infections, and that's it, plain and simple. :

We need to be far more aggressive and militant in commanding media attention to our positions, political attention for the work we're doing, and funding for the work we're doing.

ER: In my spiritual healing work, one of the first things people talk to me about is what they are hearing in the media. I must work hard to dispel these damaging myths so I can begin the process.

Back to the July 1998 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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