|Chapter 12: AIDS Conference|
|The April afternoon was surprisingly mild, and
Kate rolled down her window to enjoy the gentle breezes as she drove into
the city. The arching loveliness of blossoming pear trees along the grassy
strip dividing the street reminded her of spring break just a year ago and
the fresh pain of her discovery about Danny's homosexuality.
It seemed as though she had lived a whole lifetime since then, she thought with a sigh. What an undreamed-of world of pain she had uncovered in that year!
And now she was on her way to open a new chapter in her education. She remembered her surprise the week before when she had read the announcement in her church bulletin. One of the large churches in the city was sponsoring an AIDS conference. The fact that the church was going to discuss something like this openly seemed almost incredible!
At the stoplight, Kate closed her eyes for a moment, reveling in the warmth of sunlight on her face. 0f course, she reflected, it is probably easier for the church to tackle the problem of AIDS than to acknowledge that a sizable minority of its members have to deal with a homosexual orientation.
As the light changed and traffic moved on, Kate thought about those few she had found the courage to confide in over the past year -- Dr. Zimmerman, her pastors, Greg and Laura, and two or three other close friends. In every case, she had been happily surprised by their understanding and support.
But she had also sensed their discomfort. She had such an urgent need to talk to someone, to discuss her questions and her fears. How often she had yearned for someone just to ask, "How's it going, Kate?" and give her an opportunity to express her feelings. But none of them had ever attempted to bring up the subject again, and she was reluctant to mention it herself.
The church is uncomfortable too, she thought as she turned the corner and saw the stately granite facade of the church, softened by clouds of pink cherry blossoms.
Over the year, she had begun to realize how many families harbored this painful secret, and it troubled her that the church seemed to be doing nothing to acknowledge their pain or to offer any real help for those struggling with a sexual-identity crisis.
Driving into the parking lot, Kate was amazed to see how full it was. She was nearly five minutes late, but she had planned it that way. As she dropped her keys into her black patent-leather shoulder bag and opened the door, a feeling of vulnerability swept over her. It almost seemed as though she was making a public announcement by attending this meeting. But she also felt a strange sense of anticipation at the opportunity to see others who had some reason to be interested in the topic of the conference.
Straightening the pleated skirt of her yellow suit, she crossed the street and climbed the broad steps of the church, grateful that no one else was in sight. She picked up a program from the table in the narthex and opened the door to the sanctuary. There were a number of empty seats on the far right side.
Gathering her courage, she walked down the aisle and slipped into a pew as inconspicuously as possible. A quick glance around assured her that no one she knew was sitting nearby.
Seated behind a table on the platform she saw three men, who were being introduced by Karen Marshall, one of the editors of the church's general journal.
The first, Mario Rivas, was tall, lanky, and boyish looking, his sandy hair curling engagingly over his forehead. He had grown up attending church school and had been a nurse for fourteen years.
Next to him sat a dark-haired young man with striking good looks. John Lawson, thirty-two years old, was a legal analyst for a large national corporation and had grown up in a minister's home.
The third member of the panel was an older man, Richard Hansen, who had enjoyed a successful career as an administrator of hospitals, including two of the largest hospitals in Los Angeles. He was pale and appeared to be ill. Mario and John were HIV-positive; Richard had been diagnosed two years earlier with AIDS.
In a soft, gentle voice with a Spanish accent, Mario began telling his story. "I had adopted a pseudonym to use this weekend," he admitted, "but when I got here and began using it, it didn't feel natural, so I have taken my name back." The audience chuckled.
Mario said that after finishing school, he had become engaged, because that was what was expected in his culture. But as the wedding drew near, he felt very uncomfortable and confused. He was afraid to get married but didn't know what to do, so he prayed that if the marriage wasn't meant to be, God would stop it. Shortly after that, his fiancée broke up with him, and immediately, his fear and confusion left him. The very same day, he met the man who became his lover.
"I am very fortunate," Mario said softly, "that I have shared a loving relationship with my mate for fourteen years."
Kate's heart was pounding as she listened to Mario. His story was so much like Danny's. Hearing him tell about his experience brought Danny's feelings more vividly to life for her.
Mario's description of his relationship with his lover awakened conflicting feelings of sympathy and revulsion in Kate. She couldn't help thinking of Danny and Steve.
Mario told how frightening it had been to learn that he was HIV-positive. It had been a growing experience, he said, as he learned to accept life on its own terms. His spiritual experience, especially, had deepened. He had gone to friends and family members who had rejected him and had forgiven them so he would be able to die in peace.
John was the next to speak. While Mario had the soft, gentle way about him that Kate had come to associate with homosexual men, John was very masculine looking and had a rich, deep voice. He was using a pseudonym, he said, because he had not yet told his parents that he was gay and HIV-positive, although he planned to do so very soon.
"Fourteen years ago," he recalled, "as a high-school senior visiting the nation's capital, I attended this church and sat up there in the balcony looking down at this platform, never dreaming that one day I would be sitting here addressing you on such a topic."
His story, too, gave Kate new insights into Danny's experience. "As the son of a minister, I grew up in an extremely conservative environment," he told them. "I recognized at an early age that I had sexual tendencies very different from my peers. At that age -- four or five -- you believe you're the only one like that, and it makes you very secretive. Later, as a teenager, I went through many guilt feelings as I tried to correlate my sexual desires with my religious training.
"When I went away to college, I somehow came in contact with Kinship, and that was the turning point of my life. I have never experienced such unconditional love anywhere as I did with Kinship.
"I finally understood that my orientation was not a choice, and I learned to accept myself for what I was. It's absurd to think anyone would choose to be different, would choose to be excluded and persecuted, would choose to have his family ashamed of him!
"Tell me," John demanded, looking out at the audience, exactly when did you choose to be a heterosexual?"
Kate shivered and felt goose bumps break out on her arms as she, with the rest of the audience, listened to his challenge in shocked silence.
Richard's story was the saddest of all. He had been married and the father of two sons, when marital problems and his disturbing sexual thoughts led him to seek counsel from his pastor. Far from helping him, the pastor later broke confidence and testified against him when his wife divorced him and sought custody of their boys.
In a passive voice that displayed pain rather than anger, he told of being summarily terminated from his $150,000-a-year job as a hospital administrator when he was diagnosed with AIDS. His sons had asked seven different pastors to visit him when he was hospitalized, but none would come. The IRS immediately froze all his assets, and he lost his two houses and two cars.
"I would have been living on the street if Kinship had not given me $500 a month for over a year," he told them, in a voice that trembled with emotion.
Kate's attention had been totally focused on the speakers, but as Karen Marshall stepped to the microphone to thank them for their courage in sharing their personal experiences, she relaxed a little and looked around at the others in the audience. She saw a number of people she knew scattered throughout the church. She was struck by the intensity of interest evident in people's faces and demeanor.
Kate turned her attention back to the program. "AIDS: Our Response" was the topic of the next panel. Dr. Ben Moore, an associate pastor of the church, introduced the panel members.
It was a very distinguished group, including a university president and a physician who was chief of infectious services at a large California hospital.
Dr. Moore asked each of them to take approximately five minutes to sum up what they had shared during the previous two days of the conference and where they felt the church needed to go from there.
The air seemed charged with electric tension as the panelists spoke. One after another, they called on the church to take the lead in showing God's love to AIDS sufferers.
Unconsciously, Kate leaned forward, her eyes riveted on the panelists. Even though the word homosexual was not used, Kate felt it was implied.
A social-services professional from Chicago told them, "Those who have left our church still long to be a part of us. We are their family, and they have a strong bond with us. Do they feel caring and compassion from us, their church family?"
The editor of a church magazine for blacks, a tall, nice-looking, articulate young man, mentioned that hearing the stories of painful discrimination from those with AIDS had touched him deeply because he was sensitive to discrimination.
"The church," he said, "must be challenged to put itself in someone else's situation. We have to think, How would I feel? What would I want someone to do for me?"
"Is the church afraid to get involved with AIDS for fear that its resources will be diverted from evangelism?" the state health officer of Delaware asked. "We need to realize that the only way many people will see our God is by the way we show His love."
Spontaneous applause greeted his words, and Kate joined in, hesitantly at first, then more strongly.
One speaker did bring the implied out in the open. The doctor from California spoke about how families often get the news that a son (1) is gay and (2) has AIDS at nearly the same time.
"The church should have a ministry of providing a supportive atmosphere for this kind of painful revelation,' he challenged.
He closed with an impassioned appeal for the church to fight discrimination in any form, as both immoral and illegal. Kate felt her blood stir as she applauded vigorously.
In her concentration, Kate had rolled her program into a tight scroll. As Dr. Moore again came to the microphone, she leaned back in her seat and took a deep breath. Unrolling her program, she saw that a question-and-answer period was next.
A young man wearing black slacks and a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves stood alertly at the front of the church, ready to carry a microphone to those who wanted to ask questions. Soon a number of people were standing, waiting their turn to speak.
One older woman, standing near the back of the church, spoke with a foreign accent. Dr. Moore asked her to repeat her question.
"One of the young men said people with AIDS need to be hugged."
"I'm sorry. They need what? Did you say help?" asked Dr. Moore in a puzzled voice.
"No, a hug. H-u-g!" exclaimed the woman. "I would like to hug somebody with AIDS." Although Dr. Moore was still having difficulty understanding her, Mario caught what she was saying and, jumping up, he ran down the aisle with his arms outstretched. Comprehension dawned on Dr. Moore's face, and he began laughing delightedly, joined by the rest of the audience, as Mario and the woman embraced.
A young woman stood on the other side of the large church, but it wasn't until she began talking that Kate realized it was someone she knew from her church. She spoke slowly, in a husky, emotion-filled voice.
"You mentioned that we can get involved by becoming a 'buddy' to someone with AIDS. I have been a buddy to a man with AIDS for almost a year. Last Tuesday, my buddy died . . . and his funeral was this afternoon."
She stopped a moment, then went on. "I wasn't able to go to his funeral, but I am glad I can be here at this conference. My question is this: Does our church have any kind of a support system so I can find a member of my church who has AIDS to be a buddy to?"
An electric silence followed her question. Kate chewed her lip as she waited tensely for a response.
When no one on the panel spoke, Dr. Moore said, "I guess I will have to speak to that question. Unfortunately, the answer is No. We do have an AIDS Concerns group in this church, but we have been prevented from ministering effectively, because people in our church find it difficult to admit that they need help. There is still far too much suspicion and judgmentalism in the church. It is tragic that in a world where we all struggle with sin, and sinfulness, people should still feel rejected by the church!"
Kate clenched and unclenched her fists, feeling like a spring that was wound too tightly. She almost jumped when the doctor's low, quiet voice broke the silence. "We passed over the lady's question too quickly, Ben. I'm sorry. It was a simple question. Out of-how many church members do we have in North America? Out of 750,000 members, is there ... any ... support group?' He spoke slowly, emphatically. "I think we need some silence as we contemplate -- No! Not...one!"
Kate's lips quivered, and tears spilled unheeded down her cheeks.
"Is that not... painful?" continued the doctor's passionate, probing voice. "Do we not feel some...horror?"
It was to a subdued and thoughtful audience that Dr. Moore made a concluding announcement.
"You have heard several references made this afternoon to 'The Quilt,' " he said. "I'm not sure how many of you are familiar with what is known as the AIDS Quilt Project. Some of us went down to the quadrangle in front of the White House where 'The Quilt' was spread out recently.
"'The Quilt' is a series of panels, about three feet by six feet in size, all stitched together. Each panel represents at least one person who has died from AIDS. 'The Quilt' is now so large -- it is acres -- that this is the last time it can be spread out on the quadrangle.
"Kinship has put together its own quilt. It is a striking quilt, because it contains the names of a number of church members who have died of AIDS. If you would like to see this quilt, it will be on display after the meeting, in the pastors' lounge."
Kate was seized with a compelling desire to see the Kinship Quilt. Even though she didn't think Danny was promiscuous, she had never been able to rid herself of the fear that he might get AIDS.
Will he someday be represented by a three-by-six-foot panel? she wondered.
As people stood and began to leave the church, Kate remained in her seat, struggling with a decision. She had managed to remain anonymous so far, but if she went to see the quilt, she ran a greater risk of being seen by someone she knew. But she could feel the quilt drawing her, and she could not leave without seeing it.
When Kate entered the pastors' lounge, twenty or thirty people stood silently contemplating the large quilt, which was draped over two couches in the center of the room. From the moment she caught sight of the quilt, Kate stood transfixed, unable to tear her eyes away.
Rather than a series of panels, it was a single large quilt. In one corner was appliquéd a miniature green scrub suit and a stethoscope beside the name of a doctor, the most recent Kinship member to die of AIDS. A bunch of colorful balloons was embroidered above another name, obviously someone with a lighthearted love of life.
Kate stared at the quilt for a long time.
On a bright, breezy afternoon five months later, Kate walked the corridors of San Francisco's International Airport, waiting to transfer to the next leg of her flight on a long-anticipated visit to Singapore.
Her attention was drawn to colorful banners hanging from the ceiling. She wondered idly if they had been created by schoolchildren. They reminded her vaguely of the mats her boys had taken to kindergarten for their nap time. They were about the same size . . . Each banner seemed to have a name on it....
With an awful fascination, Kate walked closer. She could feel her skin beginning to prickle. A bright blue panel hung in front of her. In the center, a brown-and-white beagle was appliquéd. A row of red and yellow tulips marched across the bottom. Big green letters at the top of the banner proclaimed "ALLEN --June 13, 1952, to May 7, 1987."
Beyond it was a yellow panel decorated with a piano keyboard and a music staff with notes. It bore the name "STEVEN" and the dates "July 3, 1958 --July 2, 1990."
She turned to stare blindly out the window as a great sob rose from somewhere deep inside.