“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.
I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.
I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.
It was a holy moment. It was Church, on a bike.
I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.
A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.
Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.
My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down. All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Suckiness. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.
And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.
So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.
May our eyes be opened while we pedal and climb around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.
May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.
May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.
May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.
And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.
Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.
There’s a street in Baltimore where incandescent lights, flags, Christmas trees made out of recycled bicycle tires, and lit up crabs brighten cold December nights as people gather together year after year. Some hold hands, others push strollers, but each meander down the sidewalks with a sense of lifted spirit and joy, a little twinkle of hope somehow rising within them like the sun, undismayed and resolute, shining even if it’s going to be a cloudy day. Now in its 65th year, residents of W. 34th Street in Hampden, Baltimore put on a dazzling Christmas light display, multi-colored lights strung from one side of the street to the other unite neighbors in cheer as a “labor of love.” People from all over the world gather to check out this earnest display. Residents of each house on the block participate to emanate joy and unity, even though for them, this means a hike in their BGE bill, crowded streets with even more limited parking, and people roaming your street until all hours of the evening.
Each resident allows visitors to come up on to their porches and many leave out guestbooks for people to sign, noting that they delight over seeing where people have traveled from. I made my way down this street for an annual pilgrimage yesterday, just a short walk away from my house. I confess I began the evening with a slightly heavy heart exacerbated by too many conversations and images in the past week centered around gun violence or gloomy media portrayals of the fiscal cliff. I had just come from work, where I sat down with a man who had withered down to no more than 100 pounds, hospitalized from an opportunistic infection stemming from an HIV diagnosis. The holidays fast approaching, he whispered softly that his family doesn’t speak to each other. My heart broke. But this man had such a heavenly spirit in him, and warmed my heart with his resiliency, perseverance, and strength to keep hope alive for one more day. Needless to say, the presence of lights, people holding hands, arms draped around each other’s, smiling for pictures, made my heart grow warm on a chilling, windy evening. Of all the houses I visited that night, one stands out the most:
The Peace House. If you go to this neighborhood, it will be halfway down on your right. You can’t miss it. It’s the lawn with this emblazoned on the grass, welcoming you in:
I climbed up the steps and approached a table on the porch with a note from the house owners, Elaine and Ed. They describe the joy of living on this block, being able to mark a holiday season characterized by hope, goodwill, merriment, and joy. “Family and friends come together and peace seems possible. Whether it be a bright smile or the shiny eyes of a child or the kindness people show to one another, peace is all around.” They then invite each guest to write in a notebook what their vision of peace looks like, encouraging people to sign their name and mention where they’re from. Some of the comments in the book were funny, like “peace signs and pizza” and others were more serious, talking about being at peace within one’s soul to intentionally commit to bringing peace in interactions with each person one comes in contact with. Choked up, I continued to look around the porch. Pieces of fabric with “peace” written in over a dozen languages garnered the top of the porch like paper chain decorations. Dozens of rectangular flags criss-crossed above our heads: colored fabric with yin-yangs, the Star of David, the Celtic Cross, and other peace symbols. “Pray for peace” banners and rainbow “peace” pennants blew gently in the wind. “We can be the change we wish to see” emblem stitchery and a “Coexist” sticker (with the Islamic Star and Crescent, peace sign, the Jewish Star of David, and Christian cross) displayed to usher in the observance of peace as not only possible, but already occurring in this world. Also adorning the porch was a “world peace” display with newspaper footage of individual leaders who have stood for peace, containing images of faces such as Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, and Mohandas Gandhi, reminding each of us to take a stand for peace with whatever that looks like in our own creativity and passion.
It was beautiful, and just the reminder the world needs to hear more and more each day.
But perhaps what grabs me most about The Peace House is that when this couple moved here, the Peace House, as we know it, did not exist, but rather, what transpired came from the creativity, beauty, and imagination of their souls. Sometimes, we are met by doubters, by naysayers, by collective media and acts of violence that try to usurp beauty and harmony with discordance and chaos. But every day, we have a choice to make: to go along with the cynics or intentionally create acts of peace, beauty, and love for as many to experience as possible. The Peace House gave me hope that no matter what the news stories might say, or whatever the political or religious divides exist in the world, there are still places in which hope and peace and optimism dwell. That there are still compassionate people who want nothing more than to see the world engaged in love; people who don’t just pray prayers (though prayer may certainly be a part of the process), but actively, deliberately create safe places for peace to blossom. The type of place that offers a downhearted or weary wanderer just a little bit of hope, as if to say, “Don’t let your candle burn out just yet.”
Standing there on that porch, surrounded by words and phrases of such beauty, including a Christmas tree adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, and a banner crosshatched with “peace” in several languages, I knew, irrevocably, that peace can still be found and that even those who say peace on Earth is mere fallacy are welcomed in too, here at The Peace House, here in this world, where we can be active facilitators of peace, reconcilers of wrongs, through our homes, our relationships, our souls, and whenever we feel we cannot find it, that is where we must create it. Yes. We have to make peacehouses. We have to sing songs not just for our own ears, but together, whether on street corners in December or through rolled down windows in the spring time, laughing over off-key renditions of whatever catchy song plays from your radio at that moment. We have to speak and say a hearty, “hello!” to strangers, not waiting to speak only if spoken to.
Because there is more peace to be experienced on this Earth. We need only to get outside of our own microcosms of regularity and normalcy to create something more compelling, more inviting. And together, we will collectively taste shalom, pax, la paz, whirled peas, on Earth as in Heaven, this holiday season and always.
I want to tell you a little story about HIV, AIDS and faith, hope and love in Baltimore City, (where I spend the majority of my days), and beyond. I won’t lay any heavy facts or staggering statistics on you, although I am grateful to those who have spent their time, energy, and giftings on disseminating surveillance and research data to contribute toward preventing, treating, and ending this pandemic. Instead, I want to share about some of the people I’ve met along the way who’ve touched my life and paint a picture of what it looks like for us to hold hands in red today, gathered as one.
Let’s begin with faith then, shall we? In 2008, I began my leap into HIV/AIDS advocacy after a trip to Africa the year prior. While in Mahalapye, Botswana, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and learned much from our trip leader about all things Africa, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic. With a smile, she said, “We’re grateful for our friends in the US who are able to give us our medicines when you pay your taxes.” She was referring to PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, enacted by Former President George W. Bush in 2003, a government program that, among other things, funds Anti-Retroviral Therapy (commonly known as ART, ARVs, or HAART) for people living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries. (Domestically, this takes place through the government-funded AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP)) I was touched to see America perceived so positively in an international setting. If we’re honest, we haven’t always shown love towards all people, especially those who are poor or vulnerable with our finances and actions as a country, but, like the faith based community, who sometimes gets associated with words such as “judgment” “hatred” and “intolerance,” as a country and as people of faith, as people of no faith, and as people of other countries, we know that there is much good being done around the world, by many hands, by many faces, in the realm of HIV/AIDS. I implore you to consider the passionate faith based efforts of organizations like HopeSprings. Founded in 2006 by two Baltimore City Churches of differing denominations, this organization has trained hundreds of volunteers, of which I am just one, who serve as HIV Certified Testing Counselors, HIV educators, mentors, and teachers of life-skills to men and women as we build bridges between God and God’s incredible love for all people— positive, negative, status unknown, gay, straight, black, white, doesn’t matter. God sees us all and loves us the same.
HopeSprings partners with JACQUES Initiative as well as dozens of churches in the Baltimore City area once yearly to conduct 1,000 HIV tests in one day in a city-wide event known as City Uprising. This is all volunteer led. Doesn’t cost the city a dime, except for their role in supplying test kits that they have already allocated for. For an individual who receives the often times alarming news that day that he or she is “preliminary positive,” (meaning that their HIV rapid test has shown up positive, but their diagnosis needs to be confirmed with a blood test), they are welcomed into the warm touch of hand from people who care, from people who want to walk through pain or fear together, from people eager to connect you to an service you may need, from people eager for you to recognize the imago dei (the Image of God) that is in you— in each of us, positive, negative, or whose statuses are unknown. During this year’s City Uprising event, I noticed this sweet man sitting in a corner of a room receive his testing results and as he gingerly repeated in English and Spanish, “Thank you, God, thank you God,” my heart swelled with hope for a future world without HIV.
Now that we’ve considered faith, let’s take a look at hope. Hope is what has kept people with CD4 cell counts of 2 holding on long enough to see their CD4 count rise to 500 as they began taking HIV medication, known as antiretrovirals. (CD4 cells, also known as T-Cells are a part of the body’s immune system to fight off illness and disease.) Hope is what kept a woman I met in 2010 who spoke at the Baltimore City World AIDS Day Celebration from being a self-ascribed “homeless junkie eating out of trashcans” into an inspiring woman who brings joy to everyone she meets with her contagious smile, persistent HIV advocacy, and hugs. Hope is when we look at Cambodia, who has literally reversed the direction of HIV in their country, down to a prevalence rate of 0.5% . “Getting to zero,” (a popular phrase in HIV/AIDS advocacy) is a real, definitive possibility for Cambodia in our lifetime. Hope is what a person I spoke with yesterday still had in their heart, despite first learning about their HIV diagnosis one month ago, at which point this person was already AIDS-defined with a CD4 count of 111. “I want to meet with my doctor and get on that one pill a day (Atripla). I need this and I’m ready,” this person shared. This person has a bright, limitless future ahead of them and I think they are just starting to taste and believe that to be true.
Armed with faith and hope, next let’s explore love. Love is what illuminated in the darkened huddle of an HIV/AIDS support group that I had the privilege of attending with 10 other women from Women Who Stand, a Baltimore-based women’s advocacy group under the auspices of World Relief. Women with smiles as bright as stars talked about the challenges of caring for families and keeping up with daily life and still, somehow making time to take care of someone very important: themselves. Many women feel competing needs of caring for their families that make it harder for them to keep up with consistent HIV care. This, however, can be changed by promoting the equal sharing of caregiving responsibilities between women and men and making efforts to improve Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 3: Promote gender equality and empower women. Love is what brought people who are black, white, Christian, Muslim, urban, suburban, gay, straight, transgender together around the Christmas tree at the Baltimore Washington Monument on December 1, 2010 for a candlelit vigil with red glowsticks. Love is what brought people together on Rash Field on October 9, 2010 to attempt to organize the world’s largest human red ribbon, leaving each of us in awe about how easy it is for strangers to come together and lay differences aside to come together on so important an issue. Love was walking through an HIV ribbon labyrinth and then communing over a holiday meal together last December not as black people, white people, poor people, rich people, gay people, straight people, but as sisters and brothers who support JACQUES Initiative in a variety of ways—volunteers, advocates, supporters, clients, prayers, hopers, wishers, doers. People, no more, but certainly, no less.
Amidst HIV in a sea of red today and everyday.