World AIDS Day in Bozeman

World AIDS Day is December 1st, and we’ve planned an event to commemorate 30 years of HIV/AIDS- I hope to see you there.

Bozeman AIDS Outreach Benefit

For a great way to spend next weekend- and to support a great cause- Bozeman’s AIDS Outreach, check this out:

My Homily, World AIDS Day, 2010

(This is the text of the homily I gave at the interfaith World AIDS Day service at Grace United Methodist Church in Billings last night. The scripture readings were from Isaiah 43 and psalm 22)

I remember when World AIDS Day was different than it is now.

I remember when we gathered in the darkness with candles and listened to words and music that were designed to comfort- but we all knew that comfort was a luxury we couldn’t afford. We were terrified.

We remembered the dead. We hugged the living, and the very sick. We held the hands of people who couldn’t tell their own families that they had lost or were going to lose the most important person in their life. We cried.

Our grief and fear were the engines that drove us back then. We were sick of burying our friends. We were tired of trying to defend the ways we struggled to love. We were working hard to be responsible- to make safe sex cool. We fought to get programs and found organizations that would take care of the often very simple needs that the government couldn’t- or wouldn’t. And the fear- some of you can remember can’t you? It was an entity that lived in our midst, a specter of doom that we couldn’t shake.

Because the work seemed to be so overwhelming and the fear, shame and hopelessness we fought was exhausting, we needed our sorrowful mothers, our indignant sisters and our caring brothers, fathers and friends to carry us.  And carry us they did- often at great risk to their personal livelihoods and professional credibility.

There are people still doing this work because they remember the pain, remember the fear, and remember the exhaustion echoed in the psalm we heard tonight:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We remember. Especially tonight, we remember. We remember that we never want to see it again.

That is the purpose of memory. The pain of those memories has become our strength.

This is our Seder, I daresay our Holocaust.

Only, in this we are not bound together by race, by religion, by nation or even by faith. I think we are bound together by our naked humanity, our compassion, our memory and our hope.

Isaiah gives voice to the hope we share- and not in grand or exalted words, in very simple words actually.

“Do not fear. I have called you by name. You are precious in my sight.  I love you.”

Much like Isaiah, John Donne’s meditations on life, death and salvation in what have come to be known as the Holy Sonnets, show the majesty and humility in the ordinary. And like Isaiah, he works to remind us of a perspective that relies on the struggle of faith.

His familiar lines echo in our world today, where we can instantly see war and famine and suffering- even from opposite places on the globe- places that we have no context for, places that we can only imagine, spurred by the small glimpse on our television or computer screens. The question he asks more than 400 years ago, is still relevant today- Why do we fear?

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

Death has only the power we give it. Now life, that’s the true power here. And the life that lives not only for itself, but also for the greater good. Or, as Donne would say, for the greater God.

This is the movement from the psalmist to Isaiah- despair gives way to the reality of God’s infinite love, protection and mercy.

The psalmist gives voice to the doubts and grief brought on by suffering.

Isaiah gives voice to the promise of love, of life, of joy brought on by seeing life as precious, and seeing our own perception as limited.

In short, these two proclamations give us the breadth of human experience. It would be easy to reflect on the pain, the suffering, the agony and the fear. But I think that what we need right now is to celebrate the spirit of life, of courage, of hope.

I think that’s what brings us here tonight.

We are here because we all believe that coming together lessens our pain, strengthens our resolve and renews our courage. We know that HIV is still infecting Montanans- too many. They are often young, they are Native American, and women. Many are not being tested because of the fear, the stigma and still more fear.

We are here because we need the habit of coming together. We need to be each other’s memory. We need to remember that we are not alone. To remind one another when we forget. To comfort one another when we are sad, to celebrate with one another when there is joy. To gather strength in the face of difficulty. To counter ignorance and fear with the truth and with compassion.

To be here now. To show up.

Woody Allen said “80 percent of success is showing up.” I think he had something there.

As a therapist, sometimes the only thing I can do for someone is to show up. To be there with them. To quietly see them for who they are- a precious person who may be lost in the confusion of pain and fear. And who won’t always be lost. Especially if they have someone to join them on the journey out.

It’s not about solving a problem or fixing anything.

It’s about being present and being awake.

My being present involves something a little different than it used to. HIV lives with me. It is a guest in my house. It is the guest I never openly invited, but nonetheless it sits in my living room, it gets into my refrigerator, hogs the bathroom and often makes me just want to go to bed and stay there.

When I was first told I had this “intruder” in my house, I felt strange. Somewhere between elation and anger. I really can’t be more specific. I do remember thinking I had to slow down. I had to stop and sit down and wrap my head around this.

I had to decide what to do. And for me, this was serious. This was the decision that was going to shape the rest of my life. I had to decide how I was going to treat this uninvited guest.

For me there were only two options: I could either hate it, or I could love it.

If I hated it, I would live my life as an angry man, always disappointed, always suffering, always asking “why me?”, never seeing truth, beauty or kindness. I would be causing most of my own suffering.

If I loved it, I would be free.

It was that simple.

And, really, what was not to love? This is my reality. Truth is love. Hate is suffering. And HIV is my reality. The sooner I make friends with it, the sooner I find out what it has to teach me, the sooner my own salvation becomes obvious. This is simply a virus, doing its job. It is not a moral judgment, or a sign of anything but reality.

It is often simply a microscopic sign of the reality that human beings will do almost anything to be loved.

So, I love my little guest. I accept my reality. To be honest, I’m grateful for him. (I’m not being sexist, it’s just easier to think of the virus as him, somehow) Without this home invader, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to wake up. I would have had a longer, more painful road to deeper awareness. I wouldn’t have so easily seen the love that surrounds me every day. I wouldn’t have been able to put up with all of the harsh judgments that people with HIV have to put up with.

I guess I see my role as very simple: I’m here to teach some people how to love better. If they can overcome their prejudice and love me, the gay, HIV+ former priest- they can love anybody!

And I get to learn how to love better in return.

I think there are three great reasons to gather here tonight: To remember, to be present with one another, and to choose love instead of hate. That’s the lesson.

But you get to decide how to love- that’s the human prerogative in all this. You get to decide how to use your gifts, how to stand up to ignorance, how to offer your heart in the face of anger and hatred.

From the psalmist to Isaiah, to John Donne to you and me here in this place the lesson is being passed down.

“Death, be not proud” because, Death, you are not the greatest thing there is.

The God who loves me is always here, even if, like the psalmist, I have my doubts. God is the one saying “I have called you by name, you are mine. I love you and the world is not big enough to contain that love.”

If we listen closely, we can hear the words of God in our own hearts: “Always choose love, even when it’s hard. I promise you will never regret it.”

Tonight, let’s vow to pay attention to that voice.

Choose love.

Even when it’s hard.

World AIDS Day: A Need To Remember

Because I think it’s still relevant, I’m reprinting (with a few updates) my column for World AIDS Day from last year. I may just continue to do so as long as it still makes sense….


Remember when World AIDS Day used to be important?

I do.

I remember December 1st as a day when people gathered in terror and grief with candles and tears listening to words that couldn’t begin to touch the pain and anger and sadness.

I remember when it was a time for all kinds of people to gather together, people that probably wouldn’t be in the same room for any other reason. At World AIDS Day services in the early Nineties, I remember seeing queer activists, quietly closeted gay men and women, Episcopal and Catholic priests, Native American leaders, Protestant ministers, atheists, nuns and agnostics. I saw elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, wheelchair-bound elderly, parents, children, nurses, doctors, cowboys, lawyers, accountants, little old ladies and, once, a rodeo clown. All coming together, all looking for comfort and hope and compassion among others who could maybe understand.

We don’t really do that now. And maybe it’s okay that we don’t.
Maybe it’s good that the terror I remember so vividly on the faces of  friends and complete strangers is no longer there. Maybe it’s good that people aren’t dying so fast and so painfully, isolated and afraid. Maybe it’s good that we’re not so traumatized by fear and grief and anger.

Maybe.

Is terror a good thing? Is a painful death beneficial? Is emotional trauma something to be longed for?

No. But I have to say, those scenes of suffering and bravery certainly helped capture the zeitgeist of the Eighties and Nineties. It helped keep AIDS in our collective consciousness. Drama and fear and compassion fueled activism and grassroots movements and the formation of community-based organizations. AIDS was overwhelmingly real. It was dramatic. It went to the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys. And it won. More than once.

So I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that HIV isn’t such a drama queen anymore. Not to say that I want people to suffer needlessly. I don’t. I just happen to think we’re not paying attention because it’s no longer hip, sexy, avant-garde and noble to do so. I think that our short attention spans need to be constantly reminded. And, there’s really not a lot of spectacular theatrics to grab our attention today. Well, not compared to the past.

But, trust me, it’s still there. There are some rather dramatic facts to consider:

  • People are still being infected. In the U.S. there are over fifty thousand new diagnoses a year. The CDC estimates that one in five persons with HIV doesn’t know it. That means they may not be protecting their sexual partners out of ignorance. That means more HIV.
  • Gay men, and/or Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) account for more than half of all new infections each year, and MSM is the only risk group in the country whose infections are increasing. MSM account for nearly half of all persons living with HIV in the United States today. Nearly half. And those are just the ones we know about. That means that for all the talk we hear about “AIDS is not a gay disease,” it is. That means sexually active MSM are having sex with HIV+ partners statistically more often than any other members of the general population- and being infected. HIV significantly and dramatically lives in the bodies of gay men.
  • HIV strains the budget of every state in the Union. So much so, that states have cut or are considering cuts in funding to drug assistance programs and other HIV support and prevention services. These services keep people alive at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. More money is needed with every new infection. That money comes out of your taxes.
  • People are still dying. Yes, the drugs help, and people with HIV are living longer lives, but the drugs don’t always work, and HIV mutates. Our immune systems are under a great deal of strain and one serious opportunistic infection can kill. I lost a friend just this year.
  • It’s not over. Families are still being traumatized and our community is being hurt by this epidemic. Here in Montana, with its relatively miniscule gay population, new members joined my HIV+ support group this year,  most are gay men in their twenties- kids, really. All facing a lifetime radically different than they had hoped for.

And those are just some of the many points to consider.

Is it good that people are no longer dying and suffering in such huge numbers? Yes.
Is it good that we no longer gather in great numbers, sharing strong emotions, standing hopefully resolute in the face of pain and suffering and memory? I don’t think so.

Personally, I need to remember these facts and these people, because they’re part of my history, my community, my country and my world. I need to be reminded that my compassion, my voice and my heart are all still relevant. I need to be reminded that I’m not alone, I need to remind others of the same thing. And I think doing it once a year is the least I can do.

That’s why I’ll be going to a World AIDS Day service this year. That’s why I’ll be wearing a red ribbon, holding a candle in the dark, listening to words of grief, bravery and encouragement. To remember, to remind, to regroup.

Because I still think it’s important.

Death Be Not Proud

As a prelude to my talk on December 1st, (World AIDS Day) at AIDSPirit in Billings, I offer this:

Holy Sonnet X
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
~John Donne

For an explanation and integration, please join us at Grace United Methodist Church, Billings, at 7pm.

A Time for Heroes

My 2009 World AIDS Day Speech- old ideas in a new format, but it still works.

People gather on World AIDS Day to be reminded.
We’re all here for a reason. That reason is most likely a person, a person we love- maybe more than one.
Let’s take a moment now and remember those reasons.

~“We Remember all who have died with HIV, especially those we have known and loved and cared for.
~We call to mind all who live with HIV/AIDS today, especially those we know and love.
~We open our hearts to those infected and yet untested, undiagnosed – too scared and ashamed to take that step.
~We remind ourselves that there are people who continue to put themselves at risk out of ignorance, fear or shame.
~For all the families and friends, partners and spouses, parents and children who grieve and who worry- and for all those who work to help, we remember.
~And for us, gathered here this night- That we may never forget.”

This is a time for heroes.
The world seems to be unstable, politics are brutal, the economy is a mess and we are a nation at war- on so many fronts. It is a difficult time, but heroes aren’t required in easy times.
But let’s forget about the economy, the wars, politics and even healthcare for a minute.

People are still dying of HIV/AIDS in the State of Montana- I lost a friend just this year.
People are still being infected here. Families are being traumatized; lives are being changed forever because of this disease. Today. Right here.
It’s not pleasant to think about, but it’s true.
That’s where you come in.
After all, this is a time for heroes.
Right here, right now, we need you.

HIV will be slowed and maybe even stopped when the shame is stopped, when the stigma ends, when people see beyond prejudices and fears and realize that this is about the life of other human beings inextricably bound up with their own.

When a kid in Townsend or Belgrade or Dillon or Busby won’t fear being tested, won’t fear the reaction of his family, her friends, his church or their country if the test is positive.

When everyone at risk won’t fear being tested only because they’ve tried to love
in ways some find objectionable or even repugnant.
~Finding love repugnant- now there’s a problem.

When people aren’t afraid to disclose their status because of fear of recrimination or losing their jobs or being ostracized.

When information is allowed to be given freely in order to prevent HIV and educate others about risk and transmission.
When the human heart becomes big enough for all people, even those we do not yet understand.

When, when, when…

We’re not there yet, that’s why this is a time for heroes.
A time to end shame and stigma and fear and ignorance.
A hero will stand immovably reasonable in the face of ignorance.
A hero will speak out when she hears indifference.
A hero will step in when others are paralyzed or indifferent.

This we do, every day.
That’s why you’re here- you’re already heroes.
But I think we can do better.
We can do better by not forgetting when we walk out that door.
We might take that Red Ribbon off when we go home,
but let’s not forget what it stands for.
Let’s not forget who it stands for.

Confront ignorance with firm facts and gentle honesty.
Confront harsh judgment with steadfast compassion and strength.
Confront hatred with caring and love.
Don’t give in to fear.

That’s not why we’re here.
We’re not here to give in.
We’re here to stand up.
We’re here to remind ourselves why we are needed.

We’re here to be heroic.

So, do me a favor. Don’t let the ignorance in.
When you hear it, or see it, tell people you know someone who’s HIV-positive, because now you know me, so you do.
Take the fullness of this night into your heart and keep it with you.
Use it to safeguard the dignity of another human being, a human being that may be your co-worker, a family member, a grocery store clerk, a waiter, a mechanic, a teacher, a friend.

Be a hero.

World AIDS Day: Remember When It Used To Be Important?

I do.

I remember December 1st as a day when people gathered in terror and grief with candles and tears listening to words that couldn’t begin to touch the pain and anger and sadness.

I remember when it was a time for all kinds of people to gather together, people that probably wouldn’t be in the same room for any other reason. At World AIDS Day services in the early Nineties, I remember seeing queer activists, quietly closeted gay men and women, Episcopal and Catholic priests, Native American leaders, Protestant ministers, atheists, nuns and agnostics. I saw elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, wheelchair-bound elderly, parents, children, nurses, doctors, cowboys, lawyers, accountants, little old ladies and, once, a rodeo clown. All coming together, all looking for comfort and hope and compassion among others who could maybe understand.

We don’t really do that now. And maybe it’s okay that we don’t.
Maybe it’s good that the terror I remember so vividly on the faces of close friends and complete strangers is no longer there. Maybe it’s good that people aren’t dying so fast and so painfully, isolated and afraid. Maybe it’s good that we’re not so traumatized by fear and grief and anger.

Maybe.

Is terror a good thing? Is a painful death beneficial? Is emotional trauma something to be longed for?

No. But I have to say, those scenes of suffering and bravery certainly helped capture the zeitgeist of the Eighties and Nineties. It helped keep AIDS in our collective consciousness. Drama and fear and compassion fueled activism and grassroots movements and the formation of community-based organizations. AIDS was overwhelmingly real. It was dramatic. It went to the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys. And it won. More than once.

So I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that HIV isn’t such a drama queen anymore. Not to say that I want people to suffer needlessly. I don’t. I just happen to think we’re not paying attention because it’s no longer hip, sexy, avant-garde and noble to do so. I think that our short attention spans need to be constantly reminded. And, there’s really not a lot of spectacular theatrics to grab our attention today. Well, not compared to the past.

But, trust me, it’s still there. There are some rather dramatic facts to consider:

  • People are still being infected. In the U.S. there are over fifty thousand new diagnoses a year. The CDC estimates that one in five persons with HIV doesn’t know it. That means they may not be protecting their sexual partners out of ignorance. That means more HIV.
  • Gay men, and/or Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) account for more than half of all new infections each year, and MSM is the only risk group in the country whose infections are increasing. MSM account for nearly half of all persons living with HIV in the United States today. Nearly half. And those are just the ones we know about. That means that for all the talk we hear about “AIDS is not a gay disease,” it is. That means sexually active MSM are having sex with HIV+ partners statistically more often than any other members of the general population- and being infected. HIV significantly and dramatically lives in the bodies of gay men.
  • HIV strains the budget of every state in the Union. So much so, that states have cut or are considering cuts in funding to drug assistance programs and other HIV support and prevention services. These services keep people alive at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. More money is needed with every new infection. That money comes out of your taxes.
  • People are still dying. Yes, the drugs help, and people with HIV are living longer lives, but the drugs don’t always work, and HIV mutates. Our immune systems are under a great deal of strain and one serious opportunistic infection can kill. I lost a friend just this year.
  • It’s not over. Families are still being traumatized and our community is being hurt by this epidemic. Here in Montana, with its relatively miniscule gay population, three new members joined my HIV+ support group last month, all gay men in their twenties- kids, really. All facing a lifetime radically different than they had hoped for.

And those are just some of the many points to consider.

Is it good that people are no longer dying and suffering in such huge numbers? Yes.
Is it good that we no longer gather in great numbers, sharing strong emotions, standing hopefully resolute in the face of pain and suffering and memory? I don’t think so.

Personally, I need to remember these facts and these people, because they’re part of my history, my community, my country and my world. I need to be reminded that my compassion, my voice and my heart are all still relevant. I need to be reminded that I’m not alone, I need to remind others of the same thing. And I think doing it once a year is the least I can do.

That’s why I’ll be going to a World AIDS Day service this year. That’s why I’ll be wearing a red ribbon, holding a candle in the dark, listening to words of grief, bravery and encouragement. To remember, to remind, to regroup.

Because I still think it’s important.

(also published on Bilerico)