Because AIDS Isn’t Over Yet

By Deacon Bob Shaw

Come! Let us walk in the light of God!

In this way the prophet Isaiah encouraged the Jewish nation thousands of years ago to find the light of God’s love and to claim it and to walk in it.

Today we mark two occasions that require us, too, to walk in the light of God.

First, we commemorate World AIDS Day -– where we remember those who have died during this modern-day holocaust before it was their time. I call it a holocaust because we have lost some of the best, most talented, most intellectual, and most loving people that the world would ever know… to the AIDS holocaust.

Yet the one thing to remember is that ALL communities have suffered from this holocaust. Imagine the possibilities if the people who died were still alive. Let’s not forget the voices, dances, songs, talents, skills and love that have been consumed from our community due to this devastation. Today we remember the love they shared, the friendships they formed and the marks they left on society. Today we lift up those who continue to live with HIV or AIDS, as they continue the battle of their lives. Today we honor the friends, families and volunteers who work so hard to assist us through this trying time. Today we praise God for the scientists and researchers who work so many hours to win this fight. God’s love and compassion shines a light into the gloom and the darkness, the shame and the stigma, which many have tried to associate with this disease.

Let’s not forget the work ahead of us. We are in the midst of a long journey. I want to particularly recognize those brothers and sisters (including transgender people) out there who are living with HIV or AIDS and are doing so publicly. Their courage, grace and stamina fuels some of us to do what we sometimes get worn down from doing – the work to save our community. Thank you for all that you do and the lessons you continue to teach the many of us.

Second, we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the season in our church year which prepares us to receive God’s ultimate light — the Christ child on Christmas morning, the One who grew up to say, “I am the light of the world.”

“Advent” is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. It is similar to “Lent,” the six-week period prior to Easter. Both seasons are seasons of hope, seasons of waiting, seasons of preparing ourselves inwardly and outwardly to experience God in a new way.

During Advent we prepare for God’s getting closer to humanity which occurred through Jesus, who became Christ for our world. In looking toward the birth of Jesus, we look toward a time when all that Jesus represents can be reborn in our world — elements of hope, of peace, of love, and of joy. These are what the four candles in the Advent wreath represent.

The scriptures of Old Testament, particularly the Book of Isaiah, are often used during Advent because the earliest Christians believed that in Jesus they had met the Hebrew Messiah — God’s Anointed One, who would bring righteousness to the earth and create a fresh start for everyone. Many of the Old Testament scriptures are seen as prophecies that some Christians believe by faith were fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Our Old Testament reading today from Isaiah is one of those scriptures that has been associated with Jesus for generations.

By faith, Christians have believed the start of the Christian Church was being prophesized when Isaiah talked about the mountain of God’s house being established as the highest of the mountains, with all people streaming to it. Christians have prayed that God’s grace and God’s light would lead them to be a house for ALL people. They have believed that Jesus, who welcomed all people to himself, was the beacon of that light of God — a lighthouse, if you will, which attracts those who wander or lose their way. One of the most famous quotes of Jesus is when he clears the temple and says, “Don’t you know that my house shall be a house of prayer for ALL people?”

What a shame that the mainline churches have not put its actions where its words are. What a shame that, even though these words are read in thousands of churches around the world today, many of these churches are STILL NOT houses for ALL people. What a shame that many types of people are not welcome in those houses of God. What a shame that they try to prevent God’s light from shining on people with AIDS, people who are gay or lesbian, differently-abled people, poor people, transgender people, and, frequently, women who wish to be a part of the church rather than keeping silent. Funny how it’s more like a private club than the all-inclusive place that God speaks about.

As we ponder these words today, I hope that we will meditate on whether WE, Gentle Spirit Christian Church, are really being Christ’s lighthouse. Are we a house of God for ALL people, or just those who look or act or believe a certain way? Can we really “walk our talk?”

I hope that we will use today as a day of introspection, not just to think about AIDS and our reaction to it, but as a day to renew our vision as a place where all people might find the light of God’s love. I urge us all to think what kind of place we want to be. And I hope that our thinking will result in our wanting to use this advent season — this season of preparation — as a time to prepare this house of God to be a house for all people.

The early Christians believed that in the figure of Jesus Christ they had met the One who could make Isaiah’s vision come true. There was something so dynamic and loving and compassionate about this Jesus that they were convinced that in him they had met God. They called him Messiah, God’s Anointed One, because they believed that by modeling his example they could make all of these things come true.

If we really regard the example of Jesus as instructive of how God wants us to behave and to live our lives, then we HAVE met the Christ. Remember, if you’ve done something to the least, you’ve done it to me” We can meet the Christ in our daily actions with the world around us. Christmas is not just a time for shopping and giving gifts and eating festive meals. Christmas is about welcoming the Christ Spirit into our lives.

If, when Advent and Christmas are over, our lives are no different — if they do not reflect in a tangible way the coming of Christ, the love, hope, peace, joy, and compassion that Christ emulated for us — then Christmas has not really happened at all. We have just gone through the motions. We have been just like the hypocrites that Jesus criticized and condemned over and over again during his earthly life.

Today I want to tell you about one of the incredible losses that we, as a community, have lost to AIDS. His name was Brandon Ross Abernathy. I met him during one of the lowest points in my life after I was diagnosed as being HIV-positive. The first few months for me was very rough. The only person I told was the guy I was dating. My roommate at the time, who was a good friend, didn’t find out until years later. It was a very tough time for me. For at least six months I did nothing out of fear. This was pre-internet days at the time. Those of us who were computer geeks communicated through bulletin boards. I was a member of an Atlanta based gay bulletin board called Graffiti and I put a message in an area for discussing HIV. It was my way to anonymously reach for help. My screen name would not be placed with the message so I felt safe in not revealing my dirty little secret. Many, many people added their comments to my posting.

All of them were encouraging, and full of love and hope. More than one recommended me to go Operation Survive! It was a program that AIDS Survival Project hosted for those people that are newly diagnosed with HIV, or are affected in any other way (whether they have a partner with it or are in the health care field, etc.) I got my courage up and signed up for this weekend long program.

It was there that I met Brandon Abernathy. Early on in the weekend they broke down the 50 some odd people that were attending the workshop into sub-groups. There was one stipulation. You couldn’t know anyone else in the group. As it turns out I ended up in the group that Brandon led. This group would end up meeting several times during the weekend. It was a place for each person inside the group to share how HIV had affected their lives and how the weekend was affecting them. In order to break the ice some Brandon told us his story. He was bisexual. Kicked out of his house at 15 years old and living on the streets. There he got heavily involved in drugs and prostitution. Later, when his life started coming together he met an incredible woman who he married. It was during this marriage that he found out he was HIV-positive. She couldn’t handle it and left him. The year was 1985. Back then very little was known about HIV. Doctors just watched their patients die and had no way of treating them. Within two years Brandon was diagnosed with full blown AIDS. It was sometime around then that he met his life partner, Cleve, who survives him today.

Over the years Brandon had several brushes with death (three to be exact; the fourth time death finally got him). Each time new drugs and a great deal of faith got him through. At the end of his life Brandon said “I can’t explain why I’m here medically. I do have a positive attitude and I’m also searching for a higher spiritual health.”

Brandon’s story was incredible. Here was someone that despite the odds being against him, had made it so far. I went through Operation Survive! almost six years ago. Brandon changed my life with his story. He showed me that despite having a disease that will ultimately kill you, you can live your life full of hope, of peace, of love, and of joy. It literally changed my life.

I started volunteering at AIDS Survival Project. There I got to work with Brandon during Operation Survive! (which changed its name to Thrive!). Brandon lived his life as Jesus wants us, as a people, to live ours. Love your neighbor. Love your God. These are the two greatest commandments. Brandon, both through his friends and his activism, showed his love for everyone around him. Brandon’s strong desire to find his spiritual higher being and his encouragement of others to do the same followed Jesus’ command also.

Are we ready to do the same? It sounds so easy, but it’s not always that way. In the end the rewards are great though! One way to find to live this life is through the prayer of Jabez. Those of us who went on the church retreat this year found out how. We take the time each day to say this prayer (or the Lord’s prayer or ACTS) and focus on the words and let them deeply infiltrate our being. We then go throughout the day living these words. The rewards that each of us has been receiving is incredible.

There is so much hypocrisy in the world today; even in our community.

I know many gay folks who refuse to acknowledge that AIDS exists, and certainly not in THEIR world! AIDS only happens to sluts, or drug users… not to “nice,” normal gay people like them! So when that turns out to be untrue it’s a big shock to their worlds. It certainly was to mine.

Both the gay and straight community end up being hypocritical when they write the obituary that says that Deacon Bob died of a “long illness” or “cancer.” How many people have gone to their graves without allowing the word AIDS to be uttered in their presence?!

One of the saddest things about the AIDS crisis is that many have used it as a means of further victimizing and ghettoizing and demonizing gay people. We hear ads for charitable organizations that say they are raising money for babies with AIDS — the “innocent victims” of this disease. Let’s think this through to a logical conclusion. They are implicitly stating that those who are not babies who have this disease are non-innocent, willing, active victims who brought on their trouble. Who in their right mind wants a disease with so much stigma attached to it? Let alone ANY disease that would kill them?

Or what about when folks say, “AIDS is not a gay disease”? Well, no, it isn’t. But let’s carry that thought to its logical conclusion. If it were a gay disease, then what? Would that segment of the world population be somehow expendable? What if we said that we shouldn’t treat or research sickle-cell anemia because it’s a black disease or ovarian cancer because it’s a woman’s disease? Why is one group more expendable or redeemable than another?

I say these things because as I look toward the day of the year when we tangibly say Christ is born. I wish that people will begin to see that we are ALL in this together.

No person, church or organization is better than another. God does not hear one person’s or one church’s prayer more than another’s.

God says “The day is coming when my mountain will be greater than all the other mountains. Every one will stream to it because it will be a place of prayer for ALL people.”

No more human made separations. No more fighting. No more war.

That is what will happen when we finally allow Christ to be born.

My sisters and brothers, this Advent season, meditate in your hearts and souls as to how YOU can help Christ to be born this year. How can YOU empower and embody the gifts of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy that surround the coming of Christ, the coming of Compassion?

Part of it means getting our priorities in order.

How can we bicker or name-call or ignore one another when people out there are DYING without knowing of the love, peace, joy, hope, and compassion which our loving God shows on this earth every day that Christ is born in our gestures and our words and our activities?

As we commemorate World AIDS Day and the First Sunday of Advent, let us try to figure out how we in our individual lives can help Christ to be born so that others really know that this birth has happened, that this Christ really lives.

As we prepare outwardly for Christmas, let us also prepare inwardly the homes of our hearts — because that is where Christmas will really take place. THAT is where Christ will really be born.

AMEN!