Bishop Yvette Flunder, D.Min., a San Francisco native, has served her calling through prophetic action in ministry for justice for over 30 years. This call to blend proclamation, worship, service, and advocacy on behalf of those most marginalized in church and in society led to the founding of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in 1991.
Bishop Flunder has been a national and international leader in the fight against AIDS since 1986. Her achievements include developing an HIV/AIDS training curriculum called Let the Healing Begin, focused on HIV prevention education for the African-American faith community and developing an HIV/AIDS education campaign under the leadership of former surgeon general David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., and Eric Goosby, M.D., called One Voice: Gospel Artists Respond to AIDS, that involved the participation of mainline gospel music artists and concerts and raised awareness and funds to fight AIDS in the United States and Africa. She served as a member of the Ryan White Planning Council for the state of California, Alameda County, and San Francisco County. She developed the first housing program for women in San Francisco and served on the presidential advisory council on HIV/AIDS under president Barack Obama.
Terri Wilder: Bishop, do you remember the first time you heard about AIDS?
Bishop Yvette Flunder: I do. It was GRID when I heard about it: gay-related immunodeficiency disease. And I remember hearing that a number of the friends and colleagues and kindred in and around the San Francisco Bay Area and some of my folks in New York were coming down with some symptoms that seemed to have been related to a communicable disease among primarily gay men. And that there was no particular cure for it, that it literally was destroying their immune systems and that they were falling victim to miscellaneous diseases without their immune system being active and viable. And that that was happening significantly among those populations. And so I can remember big, healthy, robust guys becoming sick with a number of things—Kaposi sarcoma, different kinds of pneumonia, different kinds of lesions. And it becoming clear that there was a disease syndrome out there. That was in the early ’80s when we first started finding out about this.
TW: So when did AIDS first enter your life, either personally or professionally?
YF: Well, again, because my ministry call has been radically inclusive and welcoming of the LGBT community and people that were seeking to find a home, a spiritual home where they could be included and feel safe, we attracted a number of people who were friends and colleagues who were a part of my very conservative church background, Pentecostal church, where those different feed paths connected. And some of my very dear friends became ill with this disease, and it got closer and closer and closer, until—I was married to my daughter’s father. And I have no idea, by the way, why I’m not HIV positive. But I found out, after we had had a time where we were split up, that he was having symptoms that would portend to HIV, and that’s how close it got to me.
TW: Do you remember the first person you ever met with AIDS?
YF: No, I don’t remember exactly who the first person was, because it was always a cluster. It was happening simultaneously in so many places.
TW: Tell me about the 1980s and what was happening in your area and in your life in terms of society’s response to HIV, your direct community’s response to HIV.
YF: Well, I call those the “dying years,” because for all intents and purposes, if you got infected, you died. That was what happened during that time. I can remember having what might best be described as a multiple loss syndrome, most like when people have during a time of war, because so many of my friends and colleagues in and around gospel music, in and around the church, people who were involved as creatives—hairstylists, makeup artists, these were people that were affected and infected by HIV. And I can remember, you know, two or three funerals a week. I can remember the incredible depressions that I felt, because I never was able during that time to fully grieve one before I had to grieve another one. It was painful and it felt so hopeless. I also remember the pain and aggravation of the lack of response from the government once it was clear that this illness was running around, but in the LGBT community and particularly among gay men.
And I remember a day when I was just overcome with multiple grief realities and issues. And I remember that I got in a dark place, you know, turned the lights off and poured myself some bourbon. I turned on a Donny Hathaway song, it was called, “Giving Up Is Hard to Do.” It was like, you know, the song for the feeling that I was having during that time. And then I had an epiphany in that moment. And that was that I was going to need to find a way to fight back. We had to fight back. We had to do something. We couldn’t just see some of the best and brightest people in creation, to continue to see them just die and die horrible deaths. When you’re up and healthy and strong—it took AIDS a while to kill them, but it was a horrible, hard, and difficult death for many of them. And so, there was so much pain associated with it that I would, I believe, have succumbed to the sorrow, if it hadn’t been for that moment. And it dawned on me, we’re going to have to find a way to fight back. And that was really the beginning of the journey of working to end AIDS. As I say often in my lifetime, that became my commitment. Now, I must say, I turned the music off, turned the lights on. But I kept my bourbon. It helped me through that moment.
TW: So what did you do? What was the very first thing that you did after you had this epiphany?
YF: Well, I got in contact with some friends of mine. They were in the work of seeking to find a deterrent and then a cure. We had a sort of an underground compound Q clinic while we were waiting for the medication to be approved in the United States. It was being tested, some of it above ground and some of it below ground. And we had some of that reality happening, with some doctors and some nurses that helped us out in a bit of an underground clinic in the basement of our church. And we had some medication, and we had to hold them up with coat hangers and things. But I might also say that some of the people that began in the early testing years are still living as a result of beginning in that way.
We also had to do some other things. We had to—when people did pass away—we had to gather up their medication and come up with some ways to give it away, because it was so hard for people to get the insurance in place to qualify. So it was a desperate thing. But again, there are people that are living today because they started in that way. The other thing I think that’s incredibly important is we had to make it clear that this was an equal-opportunity disease. And it was not the punishment of God for one group of people. It had everything to do with how it was transmitted in terms of where it shows up, you know? And so we had to broaden.
And in those years, there weren’t a lot of men who were engaged with this work—not a lot of men who were involved with handling people with HIV and interacting with people up close. There were a lot of women, though. And I can remember when most of the folks who would really, actually touch people and engage with people were women. And I was one of those women. And I was surrounded by other women. And we cared for our men, many of which were afraid because they weren’t sure about the transmission roles, you know, but we got involved. So we got involved in trying to shift the theology that condemned people to die because they were primarily gay men and trans women. And we had to push back against a government that was seemingly, under Reagan in particular, hoping that people would die because it would eliminate a population that folks felt were problematic.
And then we grew from that point. Moving towards several other things. We grew toward working with the Centers for Disease Control [CDC], helping to establish faith-based AIDS organizations across the nation and world, working closely with the drug companies as medications were developed, working closely with the advocacy groups around the distribution and accessibility to those medications. We were part of ACT UP. We called ourselves “Blacked UP,” because we needed to be a voice to African Americans, who were already severely misrepresented—well, politically misrepresented in the epidemic, but over-represented in just about every health disparity on the list. And this was just another, something to add to that. And so that was our activism. So I was in ACT UP, what we called “Blacked UP.” I know what it is to take coffins and hold up traffic and lay down in the coffins until people pay attention.
You know, I’ve been to every branch of government. It had something to do with funding—worked closely with the CDC and with every health department in DHHS, Department of Health and Human Services, that interacted with communities around HIV. We were invited once by the CDC as people of faith to go down to Atlanta and meet to talk about designing outreach to the faith community. And the people that we met with, it seemed as though, once again, our ideas were listened to in a cursory way, but they weren’t particularly going to be put in place, if you understand me. I remember, it felt like they needed to meet a quota almost, to say that we have met with people of color and met with people of faith.
And in the middle of that meeting, we staged a walkout. It was about 30 of us, and we all just stood up and said we were leaving. And then we were going down to see CNN, which was of course in Atlanta, and we were gonna demand an opportunity to speak about the way in which the Centers for Disease Control was not listening to [those] who were most affected, disproportionately affected by the virus, in terms of what we felt should happen to curb HIV in our nation. And I remember the director was on her way out of town at the airport, and they called her and told [her], “You need to rush back,” because they were having a faith folks and Black folks rebellion at the CDC, and she turned around, made a U-turn and came back. Long story short, that day and the next day, we spent quite a bit of time in the bar talking about how to design what became the Minority AIDS Initiative, and it was the first $150 million that was put in place to address the needs of minority people and people of faith in and around the spread of HIV in our communities of color, communities of faith, inner-city communities, and it grew to about a half billion before it was all finished and done with.
But I remember the first notes that we wrote in the bar that night, and how we lobbied and lobbied and lobbied the Congressional Black Caucus and all of this, when, combined with the Ryan White Care Act, [that] made it possible for us to push back against HIV.
TW: Were people in the early years of the epidemic supportive of your involvement in HIV? Did you ever get any criticism about your involvement helping gay men and other people with AIDS?
YF: Oh God, yes. The hardest thing to work with was the presence of rabid homophobia. And the idea that HIV and AIDS was God’s punishment for people who were gay—and pushing back against that was everywhere. Even among people who didn’t consider themselves religious. It was amazing. And yes, it was a sort of a double-edged sword. We were ridiculed because of the work that we did. And then if somebody had somebody in their family who was HIV positive on the down low, they would send them to us. So they both hated us and needed us at the same time. And that was a reality that happened over and over again.
I would go to HIV events that were held in the faith community, and people would be praying—and they would be praying that God would stem the tide of HIV among women and children. And that God would essentially save and deliver from sin the men who were responsible for those women and children having HIV, you know, so it was very difficult. It was a very divisive reality. If there had been a disease that had run rampant in our communities that was not attached to the existing realities of homophobia and hatred, it would have been addressed before it became an epidemic and a pandemic. Yes, we were hated. We were talked about really bad. Had somebody shoot the back window of my car. Someone shot through the window of my bedroom. And these were two separate occasions. I’m pretty sure that it had something to do with the fact that we developed a theology much earlier on that is best described as our access to the divine being: God’s heart is radically inclusive. And not only God having radical inclusivity, but relentless hospitality and extravagant grace. And that had to include the people who were living with HIV and people who were LGBTQ+.
Essentially, we said many times: God is not petty. It is not God that is petty. But oftentimes we as religious people are petty. And we choose to determine who God can love and God does not. But it was very important for us, because there were people who were raised in the culture of conservative religion and when they were HIV positive decided that it was a curse. I know some who decided, among gay men, that they needed to get married into a heterosexual relationship. One brother in particular, who married a woman, and they had children—and the children died first, and then the wife died. And then the brother died, the husband died. All trying to have faith and somehow believe that if they suddenly became heterosexually married, that that would cure them from HIV. So these realities, there’s lots of stories, lots of experiences that we had. The greatest struggle that we had in dealing with this virus was because it proliferated in the particularly gay male, but LGBT, community, where we have not done our work around coming up with a theology of inclusion in their community or for their community.
TW: I want to kind of go backwards, to where the back window of your car was shot out, that somebody shot at your bedroom window. Do you think it was about your work in HIV, and you are a woman of color who is a lesbian—do you think it was this intersection of all of that?
YF: Yes. Because you see, I’m impossible. Do you see: I’m not supposed to exist. I am the antithesis of so many things. You know, I used to say to President Obama and the White House when they would need somebody who was a woman who was a same-gender-loving woman who was a clergy woman who was a person of color, they would only need to send one ticket. They check off every box, you know, because I am not supposed to exist. I’m not supposed to. And I’m certainly not supposed to thrive. [I] was certainly not supposed to have a real impact on this virus. And so it could have been any one of those things or an amalgamation of all of those things that would make somebody angry enough to threaten my life and to try to scare me into not continuing to be wide open about who I am, wide open about who I love, wide open about taking care of people who are living with HIV and working with others who push this nation, this country to do something about this virus. And so yes, it could have been any one of those things or a combination of those things.
TW: Did you ever find out who did it? Did you find out who shot your windows?
YF: No, I don’t know who it was. I suspect it was some good church people. They were trying to deter me. But you know, sister, my purpose, my passion is connected to finding the world of the divine for my life. And I cannot be all of the things that I shared with you and be afraid. Those two things don’t go together. You know, I have watched many, many people die. Many people. My file of obituaries is extensive. I have watched it over and over. And if I was afraid that that was going to be what was going to happen to me, this wouldn’t be the work to be in. And the thing that I discovered is that dying is not the thing that is the most difficult thing to do. It’s trying to live or helping people to try to live in a difficult, adverse environment. That’s the part that is really tough.
TW: So can you tell me a specific story about helping a gay man with AIDS or supporting them in some way?
YF: Well, I have lots of stories. One of my ushers at my church was sort of gender nonconforming. He would wear suits, men’s suits and male clothes, but he liked to wear pumps, you know, stiletto kind of pumps. And every so often he would do that. And I remember a time that he and one of the female-identified ushers exchanged shoes. She let him wear her shoes, and she wore his shoes. And so anyway, when he contracted the virus and he was getting more and more ill, he was in bed, and his father and his aunt and myself were in the room with him. His father came late. He was very close to death when his father finally did visit, and he came in the room and he was talking over the top of him. And he was conscious he was ill, but he was conscious and he was talking about how much money he was going to have to pay for the funeral and what a shame it was that his son was dying like this. And what an embarrassment it was. And he was alive. He could still hear. And I remember that when he left, his aunt just broke down and she started to cry. She said to me, she said, “You know, he was my boy. I knew who he was.” She said to me, “And pastor, I loved him.” And I said to her, “I know that you were the one that was his hope. You loved him. And we loved him.” And when he came to die, she asked us to do the funeral, and we did. His father bought him a very cheaply made black suit and a tie to try to make him look a certain way in the casket. And the mother, the aunt—the real mother who was actually his aunt by birth, but I called her his mother. She allowed us to use a purple suit that he used to wear with epaulets on the shoulders. And she arranged to have him re-dressed, so we could bury the person who lived among us. And it just blessed me beyond words, that we could bury the person that lived among us.
I know what it is, because I have several ashes on an alter that is in my office. The small urns are the ones that the family of families allowed me to have some of the ashes from some of the loved ones that we’ve buried or that we have eulogized. There are others that I have big boxes of ashes because the families didn’t want them at all. And we get them and we have them. And we have a memorial inside of our sanctuary. It is in our sanctuary so people can see it all the time there. It’s filled with people who died from HIV. We have a quilt that we made with doves in it, and every dove has a name on it. And it is because we want to never forget, never forget.
I remember one of our members was a SEAL, a Navy SEAL, highly decorated, and they found out that he was HIV positive in an annual exam and a blood test. And so he was discharged, honorably, but discharged from the military. And he called me one day and he told me, “I’m just calling you to let you know that I’m not going to be able to live with this.” And he was going to eat a bullet. Those were the words that he gave to me. And so I remember saying to him, “I don’t want you to commit suicide. But I’m not going to condemn you. It’s your life. The one thing that I want you to think about while you’re thinking about this is that you do have a daughter.” Because he did have a daughter. “And the other thing I want you to think about is that perhaps God is not done with you yet. And that what this seems to be to you is the end of your life, but there may be some other things, that God can use this somehow to cause you to be a blessing.”
So I stopped for a minute, and he paused. And he told me he would talk back to me. So he didn’t kill himself that day. He called me a little later on and he told me, he said, “Well, I’ve decided that I’m going to go and be with my family and spend the last of my life with them.” So he described his family to me. His mother and father didn’t get along too much, and one of his brothers was a real conservative preacher, and he had a sister that was also a same-gender-loving person. She didn’t have anything to do with church and drank a lot, all sorts of things like that. Long story short, he went home to be with his family, and his presence in his family did some incredible things over the next year.
His brother became theologically aware enough to be inclusive of him and his sister. His mother and father reconciled, and he passed away in the living room of his parents’ house with his family around him. And the whole concept of his being able to give something back to his family as a person who brought peace to a family—and that to be his last real act of love—sticks with me. How beautiful that is. And it reminds me of a scripture that says how good and how pleasant it is for kindred to dwell together in unity. He had that gift, and he brought that gift to his family.
TW: There’s been a theme in some of the things that you’ve been sharing. I mean, you’ve actually talked a lot about stigma without actually using that word. In 2014, you were the keynote speaker during the White House commemoration of the 26th World AIDS Day. And during your keynote, you said something to the effect of, “When stigma ends, so will the epidemic.” Can you tell me what you meant by that?
YF: Primarily because everything that has happened with this epidemic is delayed because of the ways in which stigma was attached to it. This is not a new reality. And when I was at the White House, I brought this up, about the realities of the cholera epidemics. They were many, and there would be a breakout, and then it would reoccur, and then it would reoccur and it would reoccur. And whole religious organizations were built around cholera, because cholera would happen often in the communities that were the most disadvantaged. And in those communities there were certain realities of crime or certain realities of sex for money, certain realities of drugs, certain realities of whatever was the “sin du jour,” if you understand. And so the theory was that the cholera was breaking out in those communities because they were all full of sin, and some of the great revivals, the Welsh revivals that were the precursor to what conservative religion really is in our time, got their fire out of saying that cholera was God’s condemnation for a community. And the truth of the matter is, I said then, and I say now, cholera was put under control once people learned that really all they had to do was boil their water.
That’s really all they had to do. The disease was spread through dirty water. And when they started boiling their water, then people stopped getting cholera. It was amazing. I think the same kind of reality is echoed in how the epidemic of HIV has spread, because people associate an angry God—religion that has this concept of an angry God. Every time something happens, it’s the four horses of the apocalypse. Every time something happens, it’s the anger of God—and this whole image of this angry, vicious, malevolent God is connected to some things that if we would apply our knowledge, our concern for humanity and our deep love for one another, we could find answers and apply those answers. I think that it is the most divisive thing, and I say this as a person who is religious. The most divisive thing I know of and the most bloody reality that I know of is religion.
Essentially, it has caused more bloodshed and more division than almost anything that has ever existed in time, because what people hate, they make their understanding of the divine hate that thing also. So God gets really bad press in and around situations like this. Just boil the water. That’s all they had to do. But they couldn’t figure that out because they were too busy blaming people and then suggesting that they had fallen into the hands of an angry God. HIV is just the cause du jour, but this reality has gone on since time immemorial.
TW: When you think about the early years of the epidemic, what are you most proud of from that time?
YF: I’m really glad to be a part of the sisterhood. The women who started this, not knowing if we were altogether sure of the accuracy of how the disease was spread from one person to the next. But we did it anyway. And I think we do service to the memory of many women around battle fronts and around epidemics that have stepped up to do that work. And I want to say that, I remember one day, one of my folks was dying with HIV and he had got down to about 90 pounds, and I called the ambulance—and the ambulance realized that he had HIV and, you know, they drove off. I picked him up, and I put him in the back seat of my car and drove him to the hospital myself. And when we went to emergency, they sat him down in a chair and I was looking at him when his eyes fixed and began to dilate and his blood pressure went flat, and I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps he had been in the ambulance, it would have been a different story. There are a number of women who were there on the front line at the very beginning. And so I think that I would pay homage again to some of the no-name sisters that aren’t real big at the top of agencies where HIV is making money. They’re not real profound in some of the pharmaceuticals where HIV is making money, because they were the ones who handled the condom catheters and the bed pans. We’re talking about fluids now. And fed people and cared for people in the early years of the epidemic. My heart remembers that.
TW: Is there anything that you would do differently if you could?
YF: I cannot think of anything that I would do differently based on the information that I had back in the day. You know, if I could change things, I would have probably encouraged people who were espousing hatred and indifference to get some better theological training. How’s that? And not talk about God out of the vacuum of your own prejudices and rather really know something about the book that you’re quoting from. And understand the heart of God is what we represent. You know, not our own preconceived and pejorative notions of the other.