HIV/AIDS & Faith, Hope, Love in Baltimore, Africa and Beyond

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.

So…
Faith.
Hope.
Love.
Amidst HIV in a sea of red today and everyday.

Happy World AIDS Day.

B'More Aware Red Ribbon Event, October 2012 B’More Aware Red Ribbon Event, October 2012

The ‘Stay Away, Come Close’ Paradox and How it Looks Something Like Letting Love In.

I was in the front seat of my friend’s car earlier today, wrapped up in one of those conversations where you don’t realize that you’ve been sitting there, in the dark, car in park, for an hour, together contemplating all of the idiosyncrasies of life. We mused about our relationships and the “come close, stay faraway” phenomenon that some people find themselves regrettably emulating at some point in their lives. Maybe you know that I’m talking about. That dynamic where you’re close with someone, and long to be even closer. So you let them in. And it’s beautiful. But there’s a part of you that’s scared, so scared, so you send “step back” signals.
I think there’s this component of our humanness that desperately craves closeness, intimacy, to be known, loved, and accepted, and for everything to be alright— even amazing, like waving your hands in the air, screaming, hair blown back by velocity on amusement park rides— that crashes into the part of ourselves that fights pain, fights changes, fights hurt and loss and namely, wants to protect ourselves from everything and anything scary, unknown, and potentially pain-inducing.
Have you ever witnessed that “come close, stay faraway” factor?

Bruce Springsteen ponders it in “Secret Garden.”

She’ll lead you down a path
There’ll be tenderness in the air
She’ll let you come just far enough
So you know she’s really there
She’ll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away.

Similarly, Goo Goo Dolls begs for the soul of another to open the door of their heart with love in “Let Love In:”
You’re the only one I ever believed in
The answer that could never be found
The moment you decided to let love in
Now I’m banging on the door of an angel
The end of fear is where we begin
The moment we decided to let love in.

U2 seemed to have similar sentiments in their 1993 hit “Stay (Faraway, So Close).” Bono created the song for the movie “Faraway, So Close,” sharing that “the film was about angels who want to be human and who want to be on Earth. But to do so they have to become mortal. That was a great image to play with – the impossibility of wanting something like this, and then the cost of having it.”1 I mirror that with the “stay close, don’t get too close” theme of love costing something: crossing into the unknown and in doing so, facing your own vulnerability. And that’s a scary thing.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

I think we’re all a little bit scared of letting one another in. Into all those little cracks and crevices of our soul that are properly seated in the classroom, hands clasped, praying not be called upon. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries have merit. We can’t let everything, or everyone, into our souls. Some influences aren’t the ones we need to grow. Some things in this world will defile and break down our souls. Like a peephole on a door, it’s healthy to choose your influences and who you will surround yourself with.
I just wonder about the times in which we pushed something or someone out when we should have brought them in.
I wonder how many times we missed out on love- any love- agape, romantic, friendship- because we were too scared of having our heart opened, exposed, fully letting in the light of another.
I wonder how many conversations we’ve accumulated in which we settled for safe by responding to “how are you?” with trite replies of “good” when every part of us knows we’re not good. So we quickly progress to stale topics, like the weather, all the while depriving our souls of deepness and wonder and intimacy.
I wonder how many of us will reach some ripe old age with questions about our families left unanswered because we were too afraid to ask about the skeletons in our closets or the dirty laundry or the elephants in the room or the mess that feels too knotty until, in our bravest moments, we gather the courage to unknot the tangles to realize that when we put the pieces back together again, it can be even more beautiful than when we first started.

So our souls fight to trust Him/Her and we take a chance here, go for a risk there, holding God’s hand, perhaps, I wonder, content with splashing around in the baby pool because even with swimmies, we’re too scared to try the big pool and so we’re splashing and getting our toes wet, all the while hearing the joyful, playful shouts of friends or strangers dunking each other in the big pool, diving and doing handstands and checking out the ocean… and while every thing in our soul shouts, “you’re big enough,” “you’re brave enough,” “go play,” “go try,” “there’s room out there for you too,” we resist it and lament in our kiddie pools, smiling when the jets pour in just a little more water for our ankles to become wet.

What are we so afraid of? Of getting hurt? Of getting let down? Sometimes, for me at least, yes. But what makes me think my feeble “stop sign” hand is what will protect me from the precarious position of human life and emotion? I’m beginning, more and more, to think that every time I hold out my hand to guard, to protect, to control the outcome or not get hurt or not experience pain or change, or actively contribute to my growth moving from the known into the unknown, I have to start to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good. Do we want to look back on life and realize that all of our guarded moments never actually protected us at all? Can we accept that living with your heart on your sleeve may get you hurt, but it’s the only way to truly live, to truly feel, to truly heal, to truly “be real” with another human being?

I know we’ve tasted the opposite, too. You know that soul-to-soul connection with that friend, with that lover, with that mentor? Where it’s you and them and the two of you realize there’s so much more going on here than we can fathom. And that by opening ourselves up to the truth, our questions, the things we’ve been wondering, we are greeted not in word or whisper but by a taste of the soul,  as if our hearts are whispering to each other, “See, isn’t this beautiful?”

I had one of those connections the other day with my dad. We were biking and I was talking to him about stuff from childhood, asking questions I never thought to ask, and learning things I never knew about our family. This is the beautiful connection that happens when we cross over and enter into each other’s stories, but not the finished part, rather the unexpurgated story that’s raw and real and human.

I don’t know what all this letting love in and being vulnerable stuff looks like, and I’m tempted to cast this whole thing off as being overly emotional as I once again stay up too late, writing this, pondering life and spirituality and the rings upon rings of circled skin that compose my fingerprint. But I think we’re onto something. Onto something with the whole letting-love-in-thing… starting with letting God’s love in and as that takes a hold of our heart over and over again, like the daily tide washing over the shore, we’ll discover the beauty and the holy ground that’s only possible when we, too, recognize that
the only way to see again
                            is to let love in.

Have you ever found yourself in the “Stay Away, Come Close” phenomenon? What was that experience like? How do these experiences intertwine spiritually, emotionally, in our relationships, in our friendships?

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stay_(Faraway,_So_Close!)

I want to see what love can do ((a non-partisan reflection on healthcare reform)

3/24/10
A prayer to God after watching the evening news.

Take me away from name calling politicians, Lord. Take me away from death threats of different viewpoints, God, Lord take us away from ourselves and the kingdom of me to the kingdom of YOU and YOUR CHILDREN.

Arguing and anger are easy. Love, patience, and listening are hard. Love is so much more respectful, so much more courageous.
I WANT TO SEE WHAT LOVE CAN DO.

I want to see what love can do to democratic and republican parties. I want to see what love can do between Jews and Christians, between America and Iraq, between blacks and whites, between the poor and the rich, between the city and the suburbs.

I WANT TO SEE WHAT LOVE CAN DO

between atheists and believers.

I WANT TO SEE WHAT LOVE CAN DO

amongst heterosexuals and homosexuals.

I WANT TO SEE A MIGHTY RIVER OF LOVE FLOW THROUGH ALL NATIONS.

I want MORE LOVE.
And all each of us can do is try. Try to love when it’s hard- especially when it’s hard.
Imagine God hugging the person who disagrees with you. Imagine God listening uninterruptedly to someone’s story so that we too may seek first to understand rather than to be understood. May we remember that God loves the person you dislike with as much love as God loves you.

May we lighten dark places with love because love is the brightest flame out there. LOVE.

Occupy Baltimore
Nov. 2011
Copyright MO