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AIDS Ministry at the Quilt Display

Spirituality Column #17

October 10-13, 1996

Rev. Pieters' Journal from the AIDS Memorial Quilt Display in Washington, D.C.:

October 10, 1996

A long weekend of HIV/AIDS-related events, conferences, and demonstrations in Washington, D.C. has begun. With the Quilt Display opening tomorrow, related activities in the U.S. capitol began earlier this week.

UFMCC AIDS Ministry will have a display exhibit all weekend in the Education Tent at the Quilt Display. Three UFMCC AIDS Ministry pamphlets, Choose Life; HIV/AIDS: Is It God's Judgment?; and Spiritual Strength for Survival, will be available at the display, as well as display copies and order forms for other UFMCC AIDS Ministry resources, such as the manuals Christian Caring, The Spiritual Strength for Survival Support Group Manual, and the training manual and video for the Peer Education Program (PEP/MCC). The display exhibit will be staffed by volunteers from D.C.-area MCC's, supervised by Mr. Jim Plankenhorn.

Today, I spoke at the U.S. National Episcopal AIDS Conference at the Washington National Cathedral. The conference was titled "AIDS and the Cure of Souls," and the Episcopalians plan to write a book based on today's proceedings. The conference opened in the nave of the Cathedral, where I sat and remembered how proudly Rev. Larry Uhrig, the late pastor of MCC Washington DC, preached from that pulpit for the Interfaith AIDS Healing Service the last time the Quilt was displayed in its entirety.

Rev. Anthony Turney, the Executive Director of the Names Project, opened the conference by sharing about the death of his partner from AIDS, five years ago today. In affirming the timelessness of grief, he said, "This soul has not been cured." He finished by talking about grief as "the head sinking into the heart."

Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the acclaimed In My Own Country, read from his book to speak about "AIDS and the Meaning of Life." He suggested through his experiences with AIDS in a rural area, that "meaning resides in successful relationships." He said there are far greater numbers of persons living and dying with HIV in rural areas than had been projected. This is because there are so many who go to the big cities "to be themselves," and then they move home to die.

Dr. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, preached about Cain and Abel and HIV, "the Human Insecurity Virus." He suggested that this virus, with which Cain was "infected," causes us to lash out at whatever threatens our security. Naming insecurity as a universal human experience from birth to death, he said, "The fundamental source of inhumanity is a reflection of a fundamental dimension of human experience." He argued that the "mark of Cain" is not a sign of God's rejection, but a sign of HIV, the Human Insecurity Virus. But in community, we will gather all we need, indeed in community we learn that this mark is God's assurance of presence. The mark is the "imago Dei."

In a two-part interactive session, I was on a panel with Rev. Larry Graham, a professor of pastoral theology and care at Iliff School of Theology, and Ms. Trudy James, executive director of the Arkansas Regional AIDS Interfaith Network. The topic was "Pastoral Care and the Care-giving Community," and we each presented a paper. Dr. Graham focused on the theology of doing pastoral care as a community in the AIDS era. Ms. James told of the founding of RAIN, and the stories of the many successful AIDS Care Teams she has established. I spoke about creating hope in the new paradigm of AIDS, and how MCC's around the world, both large and small, have created not only AIDS Ministries and AIDS prevention programs, but AIDS social service agencies and other non-governmental organizations.

A number of the 150 people present spoke to me afterwards about their own experiences of MCC's AIDS Ministry in their local area. It was clear that MCC's presence is very important in many places to many people in AIDS Ministry. There were also a number of MCC members in attendance, including Rev. Phil Matthews and Rev. Jill Farnham, and many of the MCC folks were vocal participants in the conference.

The day closed with two talks: Joseph Sharpe, author of Living With Our Dying, spoke about "being grateful for the shadow, for being fearfully made." He called for all of us to experience a deep level of self-honesty in dying, in living, and in care-giving.

Rev. Dr. Ruth Black, clinical chaplain at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, closed the day by posing the question, "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" She suggested, "Live it. By the grace of God."

At dinner and the evening opening reception for the U.S. National Skills Building Conference, I ran into more and more MCC friends from around the U.S. I also chatted with an AIDS worker from Northern Ireland who wishes there were an MCC for him.

This is an international gathering, with countless events and conferences happening all around Washington. It's the kind of event that I always look forward to as a great opportunity to learn, grow, share, and network with extraordinarily large numbers of old friends and new.

October 11, 1996

I arrived at the Mall at 8 A.M. this morning to join thousands of people in viewing the opening of the Quilt. Teen-agers and children unfolded the panels and laid them on the ground in a most respectful, quiet and loving way. Jim Plankenhorn and I stepped out into the midst of the Quilt when they were done, and wandered up and down the 15 city blocks of quilt panels for almost three hours, constantly seeing names we know. In searching for the panel of Rev. Larry Uhrig, Jim's partner, we found not only his panel, but a whole section full of panels for MCC leaders, both clergy and laity. The enormity of UFMCC's loss was brought home to me again in a most poignant and painful way. There were panels with long lists of our clergy who have died, as well as individual panels for countless clergy and lay members of MCC from around the world.

This showing of the Quilt is an international experience. I heard many languages as we walked from the Capitol building to the Washington Monument, the space it now takes to show the entire quilt. There were many sections of the Quilt which have been sent from countries such as Australia, France, Denmark, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Zambia, and the Netherlands.

How can I express the depth of grief and the enormous amount of love represented in these panels, as well as the sense of anger and renewed commitment that I personally felt as I wandered and wandered, searching for more friends and loved ones. I remembered walking onto the Quilt with Rev. Ron Russell-Coons at the first showing in Washington, when it covered somewhat less than a football field. We both burst into tears back then. When I found one of Ron's panels today, I stared in quiet respect and wondered why my tears had dried up. The feelings of loss are even more intense, so many more people have died, but I somehow couldn't let the grief loose, perhaps because there's just too much.

At noon, I checked in at the Capitol stage to read names. As I waited, I had the opportunity to speak with Dave Kopay, remembering how excited I was 20 years ago when I saw him across a crowded fundraiser in Chicago.

Reading names, gazing at the entire length of the Quilt stretching in front of me, it was difficult to absorb the enormity of loss represented on the Mall. And this Quilt represents no more than 10% of those who have died from AIDS. I could hear my voice hanging in the air as I spoke the names of persons I didn't know, but each one of whom had loved ones who painstakingly memorialized them with the time and energy of creating a panel.

UFMCC AIDS Ministry's exhibit booth is being swamped with people grabbing our pamphlets and order forms. Most denominations with an AIDS Ministry had displays, and the way people jam them speaks of the continuing urgent spiritual needs of those affected by HIV. I'm very grateful to the MCC volunteers who are staffing the booth.

I hurried back to the hotel for the plenary luncheon of the National Skills Building Conference. The keynote speaker was Ram Daas, who addressed "the mystery of suffering and death." He told the hundreds of AIDS workers present, "Learn to keep your heart open in hell." He went on about how to bear the unbearable. We can choose vacation and escape, or we can open our hearts to God, who is with us in the pain. Opening the heart means the continual breaking of the heart. He urged us to be with the heart breaking without judgment. He concluded by stating, "Death is the release into mystery. Enjoy the mystery."

The Coalition of People of Colors, who had gathered yesterday, requested that all U.S. citizens write or call President Clinton and Secretary Donna Shalala to express support of 1) the Office of Minority Health, which is threatened with closure; and 2) the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center, whose funding is in jeopardy.

After lunch, I attended an excellent break-out session on "Grant-writing 101." Valerie Rochester, of the U.S. National Council of Negro Women, gave a great presentation on the basics of identifying funding sources, approaching the funders, and writing the grants. Watch for details of this "how-to" course in the upcoming edition of ALERT.

In the second break-out session of the afternoon, a Chicago social worker gave a talk on "Psycho-social Issues Affecting HIV Negative Gay Men." Although the room was jammed at the beginning of the session, his dry presentation style (he read most of it from books and articles that many of us in the room were already familiar with) drove many from the room during the first hour of the two hour session. Many acknowledged the importance of this issue, and the urgent need to create programs that support gay men in remaining HIV-negative, but we were disappointed that we learned nothing new in this session.

On a more positive note, it is very exciting to see large numbers of MCC members present at this conference. UFMCC has not held an AIDS conference in a number of years, and we have encouraged our members to avail themselves of this conference, which offers far more than we ever could. This year more MCCers are present than ever before. It's great to see familiar faces from all over the Fellowship. It's fun to meet many new friends as well, but there's something quite comforting about running into MCC people in the huge crowds here this weekend.

Tomorrow: more workshops and seminars, and the Candlelight Memorial and March at the U.S. Capitol. Rumor has it that President Clinton will walk the length of the Quilt tomorrow, as well, which would make him the first U.S. President to view the Quilt.

October 12, 1996

The undisputed highlight of today was the Candlelight March and Memorial this evening. We began on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as over a hundred thousand people gathered before sunset. As night fell, a huge field of candles were lit as we stepped off onto Pennsylvania Ave., down Constitution Ave., and past the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. A "wave" of lifted candles and voices moved up and down the the march as we remembered our loved ones who have died.

At the end of the march, I stood at the end of the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, gazing behind me at the huge field of candles rising up the hill to the Washington Monument, and all the way down the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a never-to-be forgotten sight. As the ceremony started, my eyes brimmed with tears of pride as Rev. Candace Shultis, pastor of MCC Washington D.C. offered the invocation. My pride continued to swell as the beautiful voices of the MCC-D.C. Gospel Choir sang "Amazing Grace" with Chaka Khan. The voices of MCC-D.C. and their pastor commanded the respect and awe of this massive crowd, remembering and grieving all the talent, beauty, knowledge and life that has been extinguished by AIDS.

We heard from many "faces of AIDS": from Ryan White's mother, to Phill Wilson, to Mary Fischer, to an unknown but charismatic pre-schooler with AIDS, and finishing with Congressman Steve Gunderson and actor Judith Light. Each person touched the crowd with their courage and spirit.

After beautiful musical selections, the evening finished with Elizabeth Taylor asking us to extinguish our candles as we spoke the names of those we've lost. The crowd dispersed in reverent silence.

The day began for me with the Annual Meeting of the U.S. AIDS National Interfaith Network (ANIN). Meeting over breakfast, it was a great opportunity to connect with many old friends from when I served on the ANIN Board of Directors, and I also met with members of the U.S. Council of Religious AIDS Networks, which is made up of denominational AIDS Ministry Directors from a number of different churches. It was interesting to note that of all the Directors, Rev. Bill Johnson of the United Church of Christ and I are still the only full-time AIDS Ministry directors. Other churches continue to look to UFMCC for leadership and guidance in AIDS Ministry, primarily because of our largely gay/lesbian membership, and our disproportionately high incidence of HIV among our membership.

The morning seminar I attended was "The U.S. Response to the Global AIDS Pandemic and How Your Group Can Be Involved." Victor Barnes from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) described the current global HIV demographics: 94% of persons living with HIV are in "developing" countries. 99% of children living with HIV are in these same countries.

There was discussion of the proper terminology for those countries which are "economically disadvantaged." Every term seemed to carry some kind of negative judgments. One speaker insisted that the differences were between northern and southern hemisphere countries, but I countered with the observation that Australia has some of the best HIV services and education in the world, and there are certainly countries in Eastern Europe and northern Asia which could be considered to be less "developed" than some of the countries of the South. Agreeing there were no good terms, the discussion continued.

Sub-Saharan Africa has 60% of the world's persons with HIV. Nigeria, where UFMCC has a number of churches, is considered to be representative of HIV in Central Africa. There, persons with HIV are primarily located in urban centers, but now the virus has migrated to rural areas. It is primarily heterosexually transmitted, and the numbers of persons with HIV has a direct impact on the socio-economic status of the country. The rates of infection in Nigeria are disproportionately high among youth: the large majority of HIV infections are among 15 to 24-year-olds.

In Southeast Asia, rates of new infections are twice as high as in North or South America and Europe. Latin America has a slower rate of infection, but it is increasing, due to the lack of attention to reaching men who have sex with men.

In the US, the age of newly infected persons is declining, heterosexual infections are climbing, women are highly vulnerable, and HIV is moving rapidly into rural areas. The U.S. spends $700 million per year on prevention, while "developing" countries combined spend $120 million.

USAID provides assistance to 50 countries, in the form of information and education, behavior change and communication, and condom distribution.

The US National Council of International Health offers a program of information sharing, networking and faciliating education and advocacy. The speaker showed how poverty is a major risk factor for HIV in many countries (including the U.S.). There is a lack of access to information, roads and transportation, food, money and medicines. The average life expectancy in Central Africa is 45. Global spending on AIDS gives 6% to "developing" countries, and 94% to the "privileged" countries of the world.

The panelists suggested that all U.S. citizens become informed about HIV in other countries, that we understand their needs and priorities, and that we respect the people of other countries in a way we don't at this time.

When I challenged the panelists about the U.S. taking what could be seen as an arrogant, imperialistic approach to other countries' experience of HIV, they affirmed that this is indeed a problem: many people see U.S. efforts to be precisely that. It was recommended that we form alliances with other privileged countries in doing this work, and that we need to think and act with humility. We were urged to think of round tables rather than square.

When I asked what's being done on U.S. immigration policies, banning people with HIV, I was told the AIDS Action Council, the U.S. National Minority AIDS Council, the National Immigration Forum and La Raza are all focusing on this issue. UFMCC needs to join with these groups. As an international church, we are asking our people with HIV to lie every time they come into this country.

At the plenary luncheon, 1600 people of the 2200 registerd for the conference gathered to hear the latest updates. It was announced that Glaxo Wellcome has increased the price of AZT and 3TC by 2.9% this week. There was such outrage at this drug company, that the company representatives present had to shut down their exhibit booth and leave the conference.

Women with HIV took the platform to honor women with HIV/AIDS as well as all the women present who have worked so tirelessly in the HIV field. Speaker after speaker gave brief statements on the empowerment of women and the continued need for consciousness raising about women's issues.

The keynote speaker was Ric Munoz, a long distance runner who has survived nine years of living with HIV. He is an office worker from L.A., who has run over 70 marathons since his diagnosis. He is most well known for the "Just Do It" commercial featuring him running and pushing his body to the limit as an HIV positive gay man. He spoke of his ability to endure HIV through the same methods that got him through a near-fatal mugging incident 15 years ago: his survival depends on "paying attention, cooperating, not panicking, and remaining calm." It was an inspiring, yet quiet speech. He asked us to remember the mid-1990's as a time when an ad ran that said it's OK to be alive with HIV.

The luncheon ended with a beautiful song from Grammy-winning country music star Kathy Mattea.

In the afternoon session, I attended a workshop on Activism, Advocacy, and AIDS on the Internet. I learned many valuable tools to take back to UFMCC Global Headquarters as we continue to develop UFMCC's presence on the Internet.

I also stopped by a seminar on "Living Long and Well with HIV" presented by Lark Lands, famed HIV nutritionist. Watch for details of her "10 Commandments for Living with HIV" in an upcoming edition of ALERT.

At the end of this day, I am physically exhausted, but spiritually and emotionally recharged. I am very grateful for this opportunity. I keep seeing many different people from MCC's all over the U.S. and Canada.

Tomorrow: I teach a seminar on the Peer Education Program (PEP/MCC) at the National Skills Building Conference, and tomorrow night I will be reading the Gospel Lesson at the Washington National Cathedral Interfaith AIDS Healing Service.

October 13, 1996

The final day of the Skills Building Conference and the Quilt Display began with one last break-out session. For this session, I led a seminar on "How to do a Peer Education Program for Gay Youth," in which I presented the PEP/MCC training manual and video. The room was packed at the beginning of the session, and people were obviously hungry for this kind of program. There was lots of positive response during the first half hour. Then I showed the video. During the section when the young people of PEP/LA began talking about their varied experiences of God and spirituality, about half the room got up and left. For those who stayed, we went over the basics of how to set up the program and make it run. The evaluations were uniformly positive.

When I discussed the "exodus" of people during the video presentation with Rev. Ken South, Executive Director of the AIDS National Interfaith Network, he said he was not surprised that so many walked out when God was mentioned. While ANIN is one of the three organizations sponsoring the conference, there is a great deal of "religio-phobia" among the other groups. This has been an on-going problem in the Skills Building Conference, and I experienced first-hand the results of this antagonism towards religion.

The closing plenary brunch was one of the more exhilarating events of the conference. I introduced famed vocalist Ann Nesby, who brought the 2,000 people in the audience to their feet, singing a gospel song dedicated to those we've lost to AIDS. She was incredibly dynamic.

The first keynote speaker was Cristina Saralegui, journalist and talk show host. Her show is seen by an estimated 100 million people in Spanish speaking countries all over the world, as well as throughout the United States. She talked about what she termed the most life-altering experience she has had: last January she did a show on gay and lesbian marriages, in which a gay couple and a lesbian couple were married by a Methodist minister from L.A. The response from her vast audience was overwhelmingly negative and "hate-filled." She said she had never realized the extent and depth of prejudice against lesbians and gay men until this point. She described many of the hysterical and violent reactions she received in subsequent months. Although millions cried out against her "immorality," her sponsor, AT&T, and the Unavision Network stood behind her. She said, "I will continue!" and the audience roared its love and support. Another overwhelming moment.

The second keynote speaker was Rev. Cecil Williams, "liberation pastor" of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco. He brought Ann Nesby back on, who together with Rev. Williams, led the audience in a rousing version of "What a Fellowship." After the audience was at a fever pitch, Cecil Williams PREACHED! Reading Psalm 24, he talked about arriving at Glide, where 30 members were about to close the church. He said, "They were good people... so good, they were good for nothing! Their cross was too clean. I told them 'You need a dirty cross, one that is covered with suffering and hurt.'" He went on to describe the growth from 30 to over 7,200 members. He reported 40% of his membership are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and "trisexual." Williams asserted "there are no guarantees that everything will be allright... I've been arrested 26 times, but they never send me to jail, because they know I'm going to organize the prisoners!" He closed by talking about the power of the Spirit, which equals spirituality, which equals suffering, which equals risking everything. He left the audience crying out for more. So much for religio-phobia at this conference!

Ann Nesby closed the luncheon with another rousing song, and we dispersed. I went back to the Quilt for one more walk-through. The mall was jammed with people (as were the metro and the streets), but it was a very calm, orderly, and quiet crowd. I found more and more MCC members' panels, and finally the grief broke loose and I cried the tears I've needed to shed all weekend. I suddenly was surrounded by strangers, also grieving, and in our shared grief we found comfort. A group of us broke into prayer, and holding hands, we worshiped God right there in the midst of the Quilt and the crowds.

I helped pack up the UFMCC AIDS Ministry booth, along with Jim Plankenhorn and other volunteers from MCC-DC. The MCC-DC choir was singing on the Quilt Performance Stage as the time came for me to leave.

In those huge crowds, I was amazed at how many friends from around the world I ran into. I was also stunned to have strangers run up to me and throw their arms around me, saying they had read my writings, or seen me on TV, or heard me speak or preach in their home towns. I certainly wasn't looking for or expecting this kind of reaction at the Quilt, but God has a great way of surprising us, and giving us gifts we didn't even know we needed. I continue to thank God for all the opportunities provided me through this ministry.

As if that wasn't enough, tonight's Interfaith Service of Prayer and Healing, "The Journey Home," was one of the most awesome worship experiences I have ever been involved with. I was so proud of what a powerful presence MCC had in the service, thanks to Rev. Candace Shultis who served on the Planning Committee.

The Washington National Cathedral was the site, and over 4,000 people jammed the Cathedral, with people standing all along the sides and around the huge columns. The service consisted of prayers, readings, and music that soared through the air. Guru Ma read from the Baghavad Gita. Rabbi Marc Blumenthal read from the Torah. I was honored to be the reader of the Gospel (Luke 6:17-21), and several people commented how meaningful it was that a representative of MCC was the only one who mentioned the name of Jesus. The Rev. Pat O'Hara read a Buddhist reading of Han Shan. It was a humbling experience to stand before this congregation and hear my voice reverberate throughout the Cathedral.

But the most thrilling part of the service was the music. The music went beyond any power mere words might hold. MCC-DC's Gospel Choir had the entire congregation on their feet clapping and shouting and singing. The Washington Gay Men's Chorus sang from one of the balconies and moved many to tears of joy and remembrance. The organist stunned the congregation with "The Revelation of Saint John the Divine."

There was no sermon, but Sally Fisher, "Spiritual Activist," and founder of Northern Lights Alternatives, did a guided meditation that had many of us feeling as if we were in heaven, visiting our loved ones who have gone before us. The Dean of the Cathedral, whom I was sitting next to, grabbed my hand and held it close to him as we let our spirits soar.

The service ended with a Litany of Commitment for the Journey Home and a blessing from the Dean of the Cathedral for all people, "heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual." We recessed to "We Shall Overcome." So many were overcome by the beauty and the spirit of the service, that we were literally grabbing each other with tears streaming down our faces for a half hour after the two hour service.

The weekend closed with one of the most magnificent interfaith experiences I have ever had. It was the perfect culmination of an extraordinary four days of grief, love, learning, and transformation.

In the words of the closing litany tonight,

"The more names with which we mark and claim our experience, the more inclusive is our vision of the One;
With words and images, with songs and poems, with needle and thread, with laughter and tears, we have remembered them.
Let us sing the soul in every name, and the name of every soul,
Let us sing the soul in every name, the sacred name of every soul."

My soul is soaring.

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This article was provided by Reverend A. Stephen Pieter's Spirituality Column.
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