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Celebrating Life After Death
Spirituality Column #21

By Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

March 1997

At a recent service of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, the pastor, Rev. Jim Mitulski, went around the congregation, pointing out all the different gay men in the congregation who were expected to die last year. This Sunday, they were all sitting there "healthy, fat, and active!"

At an MCC San Francisco men's retreat, the leader, Eric Rofes, pointed out that the obituaries in the Bay Area Reporter had dropped from three or four pages to half a page. He asserted that the declining death rate is not due simply to the new protease inhibitors. We are also now seeing a decline in the "bell curve" of the epidemic among gay men in San Francisco. There were fewer gay men infected with HIV in the late 1980's, and most of those infected in the early years have already died.

For the first time in over a decade, MCC San Francisco is able to schedule church programs on Saturday. They no longer have to reserve the church for all the AIDS funerals they were doing. Funerals are down from five or six a week to one or two a month.

There is such a sense of new life in much of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities! Finally, we are experiencing some breathing room after 15 years of being surrounded by friends and loved ones dying painfully. What a meaningful celebration of Easter this year can be. So many of our friends are experiencing personal resurrections, that people are bursting with Easter joy!

So funerals are down. Holy Unions (weddings) are up. For some, it's time to pack away the shroud and bring out the party outfit. However, it's still necessary to mourn our losses, so that we can celebrate fully the corner we've turned in the treatment of HIV. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus grieved before he let loose the wonder and joy of Lazarus' return to life.

We're hungry for celebration after a decade and a half of hard work and dying. We need to celebrate the HIV treatment advances and the return to health so many are experiencing. We also need new ways to mourn the enormous amount of losses we have suffered over the past 16 years. Until we have fully mourned all we've lost, we cannot be free to appreciate and celebrate the advances in treatment and the new life many persons with HIV are enjoying.

When we have not fully faced the toll HIV has taken on us all, then our grief can break through at unexpected moments. Lack of grief work in the church or community organizations can still lead to unhealthy group dynamics, as our sadness and anger come out in inappropriate ways. And when we fail to address issues of access, prevention, and continuing service to those who are sick, we fail the ethical imperative of caring for our neighbors.

How can we mourn effectively, continue the work of caring for the sick, and balance this with celebration? What is the goal of grief in this new paradigm? How are the multiple losses we've suffered affecting the lives of our churches and organizations and families? How do we balance our grief with the relief and joy we feel for those who are remarkably living well with HIV? How do we most effectively express our joy and gratitude for this new day? And how do we still express and demonstrate comfort and compassion for those who cannot access, afford, or tolerate the new drugs? These are all questions we need to ponder as we seek our way into the future.

The temptation now is to forget about mourning, in the process of sweeping away the horror of what has happened to us since 1981. Pastors from all over UFMCC are reporting that AIDS funerals have dropped dramatically in their frequency. There are reports that some churches, facing less need, are scaling back their AIDS Ministries, or letting go of chaplains and staff in AIDS work. Many non-governmental AIDS organizations are letting go of staff and programs. It seems as if finally we don't have to pay so much attention to AIDS, that at last we can let go of the urgency. And golly, does that feel good.

This is certainly something to celebrate. Prayers of thanksgiving are wholly appropriate, because years of intercessory prayers have been answered. Acknowledging and affirming these answered prayers can help our communities look forward to the future with joy and faith.

But AIDS isn't over. This Easter season, can we really celebrate the good news without thoroughly grieving the tragic history of this epidemic? Can we truly recognize and celebrate the Resurrection if we forget about, or brush aside, the pain of the Crucifixion? We've been through an enormously devastating tragedy over the last sixteen years. For those facing life after facing death, I believe it is important to bring with us the experiences, the lessons, and the stories of the first sixteen years of HIV among us.

It will no doubt take us decades to learn all the lessons of the last sixteen years, but we must not deny or ignore what happened in the 1980s. It is part of our collective identity now. Our new lives are being built on the foundation of all we've suffered, lived, and learned. As the pandemic sweeps through new populations, can we do anything less than bring our experience, our learned strength, and our hard-won hope to those who are still suffering because of HIV?

In the gay community, many of us are experiencing resurrection. This is perhaps the most spectacular Easter we have witnessed since AIDS began. For this, we give thanks and praise. We should be celebrating with an intensity we haven't felt in fifteen years!

As people of faith, we continue to serve those who have not yet experienced Easter. We need to grieve for those who did not live to see this Easter. There is still an urgent need for ministries of faith, hope, and love as we face the new challenges of the pandemic.

©1997 by the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters


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