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Finding Hope in Community
Spirituality Column #7

By Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

February 29, 1996

Community is a vital ingredient to a hope-filled life with HIV/AIDS. In community, we can receive support, affirmation, and love. We can engage in life-giving activities with other people. We can experience the love of an extended "family of choice", enhanced by the diversity which a large group of people often represents. We can benefit from the collective experience, strength, hope and wisdom of the community. A true community can offer healing, transformation, new life, and love. For persons of faith, it is in community that we encounter the Risen Christ ("For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matt 18:20-RSV)

When I think of community, my first thought is of the church where I'm a member, the Metropolitan Community Church(MCC). MCC has always been a place where I have found comfort, compassion, challenges, and growth.

I came out 20 years ago by joining MCC. I grew up feeling ashamed of being gay. But at MCC I met a group of lesbians and gay men who believed that God loved them, who displayed great pride in being themselves, and who were in loving, successful relationships. I wanted the peace and self-acceptance I saw among many MCC members. As I got involved, it was through this community that I learned of and accepted God's love. Through MCC, I learned the faith that has sustained me through 14 years of living with HIV and AIDS. My church community has transformed my whole life.

A synagogue, church, or other house of worship is a great place to seek community. But there are other places to find it: online, for instance. Many people find community through politics, or the arts: regional theaters or choruses, for example. Many folks heal and sustain their spirit through the community of 12-step programs. A lot of people living with HIV/AIDS find community through support groups or coalitions of persons with HIV/AIDS, like Being Alive.

Unfortunately, when some people are diagnosed, they respond by isolating themselves. I've known people who literally went home, closed the blinds, locked the door, turned off the phone, and basically did nothing more but wait to die. Some people want to be remembered the way they were before diagnosis. Others are afraid of being a "burden" to their loved ones. Still others have such a fear of being rejected that they reject people themselves, before their friends or family have a chance of making their fear come true. Some isolate themselves because of severe depression.

There are people with HIV and AIDS who are isolated because their families and/or friends have rejected them due to their illness. There are still places, in the United States and throughout the world, where persons live with HIV and AIDS in isolation because of societal prejudice and discrimination. It is even more important in these circumstances to seek out or create a supportive community.

Some people manage to break free of their isolation. I remember one young man emerging from a couple years of self-imposed isolation brought on by his diagnosis of HIV. As his health began to deteriorate, he got scared of being alone. He came to MCC, and he not only found a whole circle of new, caring friends, he found his life being transformed. He met people who expressed their care and concern right up front. He met other young persons diagnosed with HIV, and was shocked to find out they were actively alive! These other youths became his role model for living with HIV, and he found the motivation and support to do the work of healing. He then became a role model for others, as he discovered the joy of giving back some of what he had gained from being a part of the community. He discovered that life with HIV/AIDS is a lot easier when the burden is shared with a caring community.

He also found out that community is not always what he thought it would be. There was a point at which he became disillusioned with his newly-found community. The first time he got sick after joining the church, he wasn't able to reach the pastor or any other friends in the church until he was already hospitalized. He worked through his disillusionment and anger, and came to understand his own co-dependency a bit better. The next time he got sick, he didn't expect the pastor or other members of the church to be with him every step of the way, and he was pleasantly surprised when they were!

Most of us come into a community with certain expectations or dreams of how that community should be, and what it's going to do for us. Those expectations are rarely realistic, and few communities (even churches!) can live up to them. If we allow our expectations to be shattered, then we can really begin to appreciate the true gifts and benefits of community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian murdered by the Nazis in 1945, wrote Life Together, a book about Christian community. In the first chapter he states, "The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams... By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world... The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both." (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. pp. 26-27.)

Many persons leave the church when their dream of community is shattered. The ones who move through their disillusionment and stay, discover a whole new depth of feeling for, and commitment to the community. The young man who ended his isolation, only to have his illusions about church life shattered, became a more mature and thoughtful member of the community. Out of his own experience, he became sensitized to those who felt abandoned in their illness, and he discovered his own power. Today he will tell you, "I live with HIV with hope because I have a faith community."

This sense of community, this safe space, this place of healing, hope, and love should be available to each one of us who live with HIV and AIDS. Depending on where you live, you may have to work at finding it. A Metropolitan Community Church is a good place to start in searching for a faith community supportive of persons living with HIV and AIDS.

Give yourself the gift of community, and experience the way God's grace abounds when we share our lives with others. In community, there is hope.

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