Fighting HIV Stigma Through Support Groups, Friendship

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

-- 1 Corinthians 12:26

Last week many "celebrated" World AIDS Day. I am the sole pastor of a congregation with many challenges, and so I am not able to simply take off. I make time, when I am able.

I was able to put aside an hour or two on Friday, December 4, for a time to get together and support one another. It was publicized. I went over, and set up a circle ... and waited. And waited. And waited. Just like HIV, it waits for the opportune time as well, WAD not withstanding.

Now mind you, this is not the first time. I have been trying to get some sort of HIV group going in this area for a few years, to no avail ... and will continue to do so.

It just stymies me, that no one ever comes out for these events in this neighborhood.

It is almost as if HIV doesn't exist. Or could it be "stigma?"

I sat there in the circle for a minute, and then got up and Spirit said to rearrange stuff ... and so I did. I placed one chair at the table, the cross, the water and candle ... and waited for Spirit to speak again ... and this is what Spirit said:

"Ernest R."

A young man who was living with HIV for a looooong time ... long before I came to St. Michaels, and had left the church for some unspecified notion. When he found out I was here, and that I was living with the virus, he came back. And we would talk. And as his journey progressed, and he was in and out of the hospital, I went to wherever he was. I administered his last rites on one particularly horrendous event. Thank God he came out of that one.

The stories he would tell me about stigma were alarming. Even within his own household. Stories of having an accident in his room, and his room being taped off and treated as a biohazard ... stories of being used. Just sad stories of being made to feel less than.

... and yet, he would show up on Saturday morning to take the men out to a particular meat store he had a "hook up" with and the owner would provide the men with meat to take home. Sometimes he used his own resources to provide for the "men" of the community meal.

Eventually Ernest was placed in a nursing home ... and even there, I encouraged and helped him to lead Bible studies to the residents. During our talks, he always expressed the desire to go out with me and share his testimony. When he realized that was not going to happen, he asked me to write about him.

Ernest died a few years ago. His service was to be at St. Michael's, and I had even gotten a few of my FB HIV support group to come out and support, but when the family got an inkling that I might talk about HIV, they stopped the service, and had it somewhere else. Where? They never shared the location with me.

I think it was one of the most painful experiences I've had.

Ernest ...

... who was so happy to be of service to others, especially the menfolk, whom he could probably identify with, being down and out, he made sure they had a piece of meat they could take home.

... who was so happy to bring the word of God to others in the nursing home and living under less than ideal situations.

We bumped heads often, but I rejoiced with him ... and I suffered quite a few times with him: when he went into a coma, as his personhood was diminished, as his family situation deteriorated. I suffered with him, as I listened to his stories.

And so, it was somewhat of a surprise as I sat in the quiet of the fellowship hall, hoping for an HIV support group to appear, that Ernest would appear instead ... to be my support.

To encourage me to go on, and not to let appearances distract me. That my voice is being heard, that my actions reflect my care for the community when it comes to HIV and to stay the course ...

... to continue rejoicing with others and suffering with them as well. Our Creator has given us more than enough grace to carry this through.

Grace will lead us home.

Who is on the other side of your table, encouraging you from the other side? Amen and thank you, Ernest R. -- Here's to you!

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