World AIDS Day 2011: One Catholic's Musings on Hope

I was working for a legal advocacy program run by Presbyterians in a food pantry run by Roman Catholics when I first noticed what seemed at the time some big differences between the social justice ministry styles of Protestants and Catholics.

The woman in charge, a natural minister but lawyer by trade, made a stack of bibles (in Spanish and English) available to clients, set up a semi private area for prayer, and initiated a brief prayer for staff at the end of our shift after clients had gone. It was her custom to fashion beautiful, personalized prayers on behalf of the people we had sought to support that morning. ('Dear Lord, we ask you to give Mrs. Clark strength as she prepares to appear in Housing Court. May You in Your goodness soften the heart of her landlord ...') My own Roman Catholic approach would more likely have taken the form of a warp-speed, sotto voce Hail Mary. The whole thing felt foreign, so I limited my evangelizing to using my 'Pigeon Spanish' expertise to fill out intake forms and seventh grade computational acumen to help clients with supplementary food worksheets.

One morning, when the legal minds were busy being legal minds, I got a Spanish-speaking client. (Despite my lack of foreign language knowledge, I was the closest thing we had to a Spanish language speaker.) To my dismay, she was not seeking help with the food stamps tabulations. She wanted someone to pray with her.

"Can you pray with her?" asked one of the Protestant Juris Doctors.

"Christ," I thought, "How the hell am I gonna get out of this?"

"She's a Catholic."

Shortly thereafter I found myself stuck in what I had come to think of as the dread oramus bullpen, face-to-face with this lovely woman. I had made the common mistake of having too good an accent in a language I didn't know, thus giving her the false impression that I could understand her Spanish, but we quickly learned that we could fold her weak English into my bad Spanish and thus communicate.

She was living with HIV. One of her adult children had HIV. Another, who had given up, was appearing poised to take the whole family down with him. He had full-blown AIDS, was abusing street drugs, and stealing from family and refusing medical treatment. I suggested a secular, practical, governmental modes of support. She handed me the Spanish Bible. She wanted to pray los Salmos. I gestured as if to say, 'you first.' She said something like "No tengo gusto de leer en voz alta." Not for nothing had I been a teacher for 15 years. I knew that "I don't like to read aloud" in any language often means "I can't read aloud."

So, for the first time ever, I prayed the Salmos in Espanol. I felt as ridiculous as I did unworthy. But thanks to this lovely lady who was so rich in hope, I've been turning to the Psalms ever since.

As we headed to our Thanksgiving destination last week, my husband and I found ourselves fielding our three teenagers' questions about AIDS. Their questions rose out of discussion of the Brooklyn museum exhibit "Hide/Seek," which our adolescent children (who all study at the museum) have seen or will soon see.

For them HIV and AIDS has always had a human face - some charming human faces, actually; they work in AIDS ministry. "How did it start?" one of the kids asked. We told them about "Patient Zero," the very sexually active man who was thought to have kicked off the epidemic among gay men, adding that we now know that the there was "much more to it" (than some lone, queer Typhoid Mary).

We described the New York City we knew in the 80's. Several of our friends were New York painters. I was a young poet giving readings in galleries, art spaces, cafes and clubs. Two months short of 30 years ago, my husband and I danced our first dance at the Pyramid Club, an East Village club frequented by gay men and drag queens. I noted how "Hide/Seek" reminded me anew of what it was to see New York City's gay population thinned out, and an art world on whose periphery I was, savaged.

One of the painters I came to know and love during the 1980s in NYC was Maureen Mullen. Two years ago a group of her paintings "Preparation Series" her work was exhibited as part of the World AIDS Day event at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn. "Preparation Series" chronicled her brother-in-law's journey through the last stages of AIDS. She loved him very much and accompanied him bravely, in a spiritual, visceral and fully present way as he made his way toward death.

Maureen was on a similar journey herself when she exhibited these paintings in the back of St. Augustine Church two years ago. It was the last exhibit this immensely gifted artist and teacher, who was like a beloved sister to me, would have -- before dying herself of cancer at the age of 48. She, another of our friends and I helped her install the show during the last days of November in 2009. I remember haranguing her, drill-sergeant-style, to get materials to me on time. (She had asked me to write something about the work.) I remember alternating between "Are you sure you're up to it?" and verbal kicks in the ass. I knew how sick she was, and she knew I knew. A little over three months later, she was gone.

Maureen was deeply delighted about the opportunity to exhibit "Preparation Series" in a Roman Catholic church she loved. The paintings celebrate the healing love makes possible. Watching people see her paintings fortified and delighted her. I visited those paintings it each day for a week following the event, and was walloped every time by her angel messenger wattage. Maureen had been incarnating the very truth her paintings radiated. Her World AIDS Day contribution emerged from her own hope, even as she was living suffering similar to that she depicted through paint. If that was not the Holy Spirit at work, I don't know what might be.

I think of it now as a World AIDS Day blessing -- maybe even a miracle -- one that makes me hunger and hope for more.

I believe the Roman Catholic Church has done tremendous good for many individuals with AIDS. I also believe that the Roman Catholic doctrinal prohibitions against the use of condoms have caused AIDS to spread. Yes, it is with sorrow I say that I am one of those who believes that the current pope and his predecessor have the blood of many victims of AIDS on their hands.

But Ratzinger might be changing his tune on condoms and AIDS; he has already come half-way around on the matter. Many of his bishops have long been pressuring the Vatican to revise its doctrine on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease. Many Roman Catholic clerics working among the poor in the developing regions disregard the Magisterium's teaching on condoms for reasons of conscience, for the greater good of saving lives. I may be dreaming -- but I believe there is reason to hope that the Vatican will finally do the right thing for the hundreds of thousands of people at risk for contracting HIV.

People in the industrialized world who are living with HIV are now more likely to live healthful lives. That is indeed a blessing, but throughout the world medications that arrest the damage the virus does and inhibit the spread of the HIV and AIDS are unavailable or unaffordable to far too many people. In 2010, approximately 34 million people were living with HIV worldwide. By most estimates about 390,000 children contracted the virus within the past two years and as of 2009, 16 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. Approximately 1.7 million people did of AIDS-related causes last year. The World Health Organization reports that 10 million patients in need of ART (antiretroviral therapy) are not able to receive it. In the past year, the rate of infection has risen in Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, and among teenage girls.

Educational programs, voluntary male circumcision, protocols targeting pregnant women and children with HIV and AIDS, and programs which both promote and facilitate the use of condoms are needed in order that the war on AIDS be won -- in order that we, the world might come full circle, from "Patient Zero" - to zero cases of the disease.

As a Roman Catholic, I'm not proud of the Vatican's policies on condoms, but the Vatican is not the church. There is much in and of the church that does make me proud. Two Catholic churches I sometimes attend -- Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Augustine -- will join to commemorate World AIDS Day 2011 at 7 pm on December 1st at St. Augustine Church in Brooklyn. I take pride in any Roman Catholic effort that has Christ enough in it to support such holy action. The overriding love of those who show up, despite the hierarchy's scorn for them, so as to hear the names of the dead, the dead who continue to shed light -- and to celebrate those living with the virus -- inspires me.

If you are in New York City on December 1st, consider attending the World AIDS Day Interfaith Prayer Service Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Augustine Churches are hosting in Brooklyn. Hear the names, the music. Behold the art. The church itself is a masterpiece. "Dwell" there, a spell, as the psalmist says, "in the house of the Lord" -- or, if you prefer in a house hope built.