I remember the ambient anxiety of the early 1980s, back when people began to disappear. I knew a couple, Terry and Francis, who lived in New York. Each of them worked for the same advertising company, sharing ideas and strategies both inside and outside of the office. Quite suddenly, with hardly any warning, Francis struggled to manage work and home life without Terry, as if Terry had suddenly been snatched away by aliens from outer space.
A friend of mine told me about some of his friends in San Francisco, David and Brad. They had moved there as roommates a few years earlier from the Midwest. They might as well have been a couple as they spent nearly all their spare time together exploring the city, taking trips to Napa for wine tasting, or sailing on the Bay. Just as suddenly as Francis had, David found himself alone, without Brad by his side.
Before long we knew more about the aliens who had been snatching these people away. They were given names like pneumocystis pneumonia and kaposi sarcoma. Some of us began referring to this phenomenon like a thunderstorm; no one knew where or when the lightning would strike next. The storm itself was given a name, too. At first it was called GRID (“gay-related immune deficiency,” or what the New York Times called a “new homosexual disorder”) and then eventually HIV and AIDS (“gayness” was removed from the nomenclature but not from the stigma, which today’s younger generations have apparently revived by hesitating even to hug people infected with the virus).
As it sometimes happens, this first Sunday of Advent—“New Year’s Day” on the Christian calendar—coincides with World AIDS Day. The strangeness of what many church-going Christians are hearing from Matthew’s gospel on this day actually sounds eerily familiar to those of us who lived through the pre-anti-retroviral drug years. In that gospel text, Jesus describes the early warning signs of the world’s end: two will be working side by side in a field, Jesus says, and one will be taken, the other left behind. Two will be grinding grain together, he says, and one will be taken, the other left behind (Matthew 24:36-44).
That ancient text describes rather well what life was like for many of us in the 1980s and early 1990s. British theologian Elizabeth Stuart writes about those years and recalls how, with very few exceptions, the vast machinery of the institutional church simply abandoned the sick and dying when they needed its ministry the most, in a time of deep anxiety and even terror. Stuart recalls something else as well: in the face of apocalyptic distress, we learned in new ways how to care for each other. “Lesbians and gay men sat in hospitals together,” she writes, “went to funerals together, and stared death in the face together.”
Back then, queer people offered a tangible reminder of what church ought to look like and why it should matter: in world-ending moments, we need visible signs of hope.
This is also why New Year’s Day on the Christian calendar always presents us with apocalyptic texts, with stories and images of the world’s end. This can remind us, first, that all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly (to which the history of World AIDS Day bears witness), and then second, why the coming of Christ matters for each of those endings—a coming, as Matthew’s Jesus says, that is always unexpected.
To be sure, these texts sound threatening and ominous. But there is another kind of tone running through biblical texts and Christian traditions that also rightly belongs to the apocalyptic genre; it’s the tone of longing and yearning for intimacy, the tender tone of desire. It is—and this may be just as unexpected as a thief in the night—the tone of God’s own desire to be in communion with us.
Biblical writers present us repeatedly with precisely this God:
- The God who goes searching for Abraham and Sarah in the distant land of Ur.
- The God who goes searching for Joseph residing in Egypt.
- The God who goes searching for Naomi, who brought Ruth along with her.
- The God who goes searching for God’s own dear people in exile.
- The God who comes as the Lover searching for the Beloved; the one who searches for us as one of us, in the flesh.
The hope we all need in world-ending moments can appear quite simply and quietly, as the touchable presence of accompaniment; it is the hope of not being alone.
Can we adopt that kind of hope today? Is the Creator God still with us, as ecosystems collapse and species disappear? What does hope now look like in this present age of anxiety and barely-contained terror?
We queer people offered visible hope to each other as our late-twentieth-century worlds unraveled. As worlds unravel again today, God calls us to that queer work of embodied hope again. Let us make it our shared Advent discipline—just in time for Christmas—to (re)assure each other of the One whose name stands forever as Immanuel—God with us.
2 thoughts on “Making Hope Visible: Advent and World AIDS Day”
Thanks for posting on World AIDS Day. I have so many friends who died from this dreadful disease, including my dear friend, Barney, who was one of my presenters at my ordination to the priesthood.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to preside at a healing service on Wednesdays at the Church of St. John in the Village. About ten people attended each service, some of were losing weight, but I couldn’t ask them why. Some, I knew, had not been touched all week long, and yearned for the laying-on-of-hands at that liturgy.
I served as chaplain to Episcopal patients at St. Vincent’s hospital, under the auspices of St. John’s in the Village. I was privileged to call on some beautiful, brave, human beings whose diagnosis read pneumocystic pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma. I brought communion to these beautiful people whose bodies were ravaged by the awful symptoms of AIDS.
I remember attending a funeral in December at St. George’s Church in the Village for one of the patients. His partner was an opera singer and he offered a beautiful aria at the service. In the service, the young priest who preached mentioned nothing of the horror, the pain, or the shame (then) of the disease. Not one word about this young man or what he suffered. I was so angry when I left the service that I wanted to scream. I met the young man’s mother after the service. I mentioned what a difficult Christmas this would be for her and her family. She said her son would have been 27 on Christmas Day. I put my arms around her and wept with her. Afterwards, another priest who had been at the awful service went with me to a restaurant where we shared our anger and our tears.
I remember calling on a priest named Mills Omaly. He had been fired from his parish position when people learned he was gay. His wife and he had divorced, and his wife’s bishop, the infamous John David Schofield, had forbidden Mills to see their daughter. I went to his apartment thinking that I might offer some strength and comfort, but I quickly learned that I was the one to receive strength from his incredible faith. He offered counseling to others who had AIDS-related illnesses and to their partners and loved ones. Mills Omaly was a man who inspired me by his faith, his courage, his patience, and his love.
The early 1980s were very difficult times for people who lived on either coast. We saw our friends disappear, and we couldn’t speak the word When I was working in southern Indiana, My friend, Barney, called me from the Bay Area to tell me he was sick. “Is it AIDS?” I asked. “Oh, no,” he answered. But then as his illnesses progressed, he did tell me the truth. I was able to fly to SF to be with him for a week. He had lost about half of his original weight. He had been driving himself to chemotherapy for the lymphoma he had. I drove him daily while during my visit, and made several calls to groups that began bringing in meals, and eventually taking him to treatment.
Barney had been an Episcopalian, but sometime in his thirties became a Russian Orthodox. He had served on their vestry, worked faithfully for the church in San Anselmo, but as he was dying the priest there refused to visit or to preside at his funeral. His partner, an Afghani who had been a Muslim, but had been baptized in the orthodox church, was livid and to this day has nothing to do with the church. I was horrified, and said that I would one day confront the priest and/or the congregation about their neglect of a faithful member. Baser, Barney’s partner, urged me not to, but I just may write a letter, late though it may be.
We must remember the people who have been affected by this scourge. We must give thanks for their lives and their courage and their faith. We must never forget the ignorance of so many people, the heartlessness, the willingness to ignore the victims, or condemn them for “getting what they deserved.”
These are my memories on AIDS Day. My heart is breaking as I remember so many dear people.
Thank you… these words stir a grieving heart with gratitude.