I know the numbers are important, but this year my observance will be to remember faces, faces of people I knew, faces of people with the disease, as well as people who cared about them.
The disease is often identified with homosexuality, especially homosexual men, but even at the outset of the epidemic in 1981 health authorities learned that nearly half of those infected were not homosexual men. Fear of the disease and homophobia flowed together to create near panic in the first decade of the epidemic. In that hysteria I learned about what was then a unique church in Atlanta.
Someone asked me if I had heard about a United Methodist Church where gays were welcome. I hadn’t and was doubtful. My son and I visited this church near downtown which itself was the result of bringing together two small churches that had been casualties of urban decay in the area surrounding downtown.
What I discovered on my first Sunday at Grant Park-Aldersgate United Methodist Church was that half the congregation was over sixty-five, and as I would learn later "straight," as was their pastor, Sally Daniel. The other half of the congregation was made up of young and middle aged gay men and women. The church was not dying; it was thriving!
I asked Sally to lunch in part because I was curious about why she had chosen to commit “vocational suicide” by opening the church to gays and lesbians. She was a tall blond former ballet dancer who had come into the ordained ministry at mid-life. She told me that she hadn’t done anything special. Two years before, the Metropolitan Community Church in the city had been burned to the ground by arsonists. An appeal went out to the clergy of the city to show up at the site in solidarity with the people of the church. Only four clergy showed up. Sally was one of them. She told me that one of the members of the burned out church asked her if he could come to her church. She said, “’Unaccustomed to being asked if someone could attend the church where I was pastor,’ I said ‘Of course!’” That man came and was followed by many others.
Years later I learned that hadn’t been the beginning of her special ministry. When she was doing her pastoral care training at a local hospital as a student at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, she found a young man dying of AIDS in one of the beds. The panic over the developing epidemic made even the medical personnel reluctant to be around him. He was dying alone. Against the warning of the floor supervisor, Sally entered the room, sat beside his bed for hours holding his hand, mopping his brow, and leaning close to his ear telling him that he was loved. She refused to leave until the young man had taken his last breath.
On our third visit to Grant Park-Aldersgate, my son and I sat a few rows back from a young man whose appearance you couldn't miss. His head, face, and hands were covered with lesions, or sores. "Horrible" was not too strong a word to describe his appearance. The young man had AIDS, and not too long to live.
After the sermon, he was called down to the front where the pastor baptized him and received him into the membership of that church. Then, as she always did when new people were received into membership, she invited the congregation to come forward to give this new member "a real Grant Park-Aldersgate welcome." I was transfixed as I watched the entire congregation of about 50 or 60 get up out of their seats and go down the aisle. Older people, young people, middle-aged people, one by one, took this young dying man into their arms and hugged him. No handshakes, just hugs and warm embraces. And, it was almost as if I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, "Pay attention, Milo, this is what the church is supposed to be." When this man died a few weeks later, he died knowing that there was a place and a community of people who loved him, who didn't treat him like a leper, who weren't afraid of his disease, who didn't condemn him because he was gay, and who treated him as the precious child of God he was. After that experience I could never be the same again.
Sally died in 2006 at the age of 75. On Saturday I will be remembering and giving thanks for her.
Not long after my experience at Grant Park-Aldersgate, in 1992 I became pastor of a church in Juneau, Alaska. The church had half the name of Sally’s church. I took that as a good omen. Aldersgate was a five year old United Methodist Church the majority of who’s sixty or so members didn’t have previous experience in any church. Linda was a member of the congregation.
Linda was sick with the flu and felt terrible, but she was on the plane coming home to Juneau, Alaska from Seattle. Her husband and their six and nine year old girls were waiting for her. It’s bad enough having to fly when you feel that bad, but to fly “the local” – making stops in Ketchikan and Sitka before landing in Juneau – might be regarded as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Besides that the plane was full and the only seat she could get was a middle seat between two men. They introduced themselves as Jim and Tom. Somewhere along the way, somewhere between stops, somewhere between bouts of nausea, Linda learned that both Jim and Tom were HIV positive; they both had AIDS. She told them about her church in Juneau and asked them about theirs. They didn’t have one. Jim had never been in church. Although Tom was raised in a Christian family, he felt that his family disowned him when he contracted AIDS.
Linda always invited people to church, and she invited Jim and Tom. They lived ten miles from the Mendenhall Valley where the church was and where Linda and her family lived. Jim and Tom didn’t have a car. Never mind! Linda and her husband Steve went into town to pick them up – Sunday after Sunday. In the small congregation Jim and Tom were welcomed. They shared freely about their medical condition. Within a couple of weeks, they asked to be baptized and to become members of the church. And they were. Transported by Linda and Steve, they came to worship regularly.
Within a year Jim died, and in another six months Tom was dead. As both of them said many times, in this congregation they felt they had “come home.” We believed that they had – all because a woman sick on an airplane didn’t hesitate to reach out to them. The members of the congregation also welcomed them. None of them had had any experience with persons with AIDS, but they wrapped their arms around Jim and Tom in such a way that the word got out into the AIDS community and the church found itself in ministry to others with the disease. They learned that this was a place and people where they would be welcome.
On Saturday I will be giving thanks for Linda, Jim, Tom, and the Aldersgate congregation.
Another member of the congregation—Gay was in her 80s—told us about her neighbor, a young man with AIDS. She asked him if he would like a visit from her pastor. He said he would and one afternoon Connie and I went to see him. He looked up at us from his bed and said, “I have AIDS. I want you to help me learn to pray and how to die.” We visited with John regularly and when he felt up to it he had someone bring him to the church where he would sit in the sanctuary by himself meditating. He told us he wished he had started this process earlier in life. He was all of twenty-five. He never joined the church. That wasn’t important to him or us. He had learned to pray and was ready to die.
We had his funeral at Aldersgate. Since he had never attended a service there, except for his neighbor, the people in the church didn’t know him. Four elderly women from the congregation prepared a lavish reception with all kinds of salmon spreads, cookies, cakes, and coffee. The friends of John who came to the funeral were about twenty scruffy looking bikers. They joked about never having been in a church before. Others might have been intimidated, but not these four seniors. Before the afternoon was over they had charmed the guests with their food and hospitality. The young men didn’t want to leave.
On Saturday I will be remembering John, Vi, Vickie, Mae, and Gay.
"An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
'Could it be,' asked one of the students, 'when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it's a sheep or a dog?'
'No,' answered the rabbi.
Another asked, 'Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it's a fig or a peach tree?'
'No,' answered the rabbi.
'Then when is it?' the pupils demanded.
'It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.'"