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

82 Christmas Parading Cop Cars

I’m driving back home after a run, noticing the persistent knot of anxiety in my stomach for the 97th time. I find myself thinking about this twenty something stage of life and how, from a billion different angles, people, places, and things are changing rapidly, like the wind, and I feel like a little wishie dandelion in a big field wondering why I’m no longer yellow, hoping I don’t get mistaken for a weed, and also hoping my seeds won’t scatter away at once. But I am not a dandelion, I am a human. Driving in a car. Getting closer to my neighborhood, I say my constant prayer to ask God to keep me safe again just one more time.

I know.

Some people are pros at living life, shining their little light in the inner city, just like anywhere else.

I myself am a scared, fearful, constantly awed, diversity-loving, naïve city dweller.

So bear with me.

I’m getting closer to my house, knowing my beloved and ever-patient roommate had left for Christmas break and unless I decided to find a friend to stay with, I’d be spending the night in the hood, alone, with no one else in the house. I started crying, realizing that until moving, I never had placed myself in situations where my safety had crossed my mind. I know. You’re probably sick of hearing me cry or me writing about crying or telling these stories. I’m sorry. As pathetic as it may sound, I was crying. It started raining (of course) and it was dark (fits with the story, right?). I made a right turn to get onto my one way street and noticed two pulled over police cars with their lights on, flashing. Of course. I peered in my rear view to see if I could make out anything going on. Realizing my eyes we no longer on the road, I snapped out of it before I could hit a parked car. ((Turns out that later on that night, I would find out through a neighbor that they were there investigating a double shooting. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. ))

I find a spot outside my house, park the car, and step out, sighing, “God, I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” feeling discouraged and in need of direction, trying to ignore my own cynicism and fears that often ensnare me into the Kingdom of Me. I don’t mean to keep arriving there. I start off in the Kingdom of God and suddenly I find myself at a bread and breakfast all-inclusive stay at the Kingdom of Me. I’m done. I want out.

I walk to my doorstep, steady rain falling, and notice cop cars pulling on to my street, sirens blaring. Above are two police helicopters swirling shining spotlights in irregular patterns. One, two, three, four, five police cars. I’m already crying, but now the tears were really coming as I begin to quiver at the thought of what could be going on. This must be bad. This has to be bad. Six, seven, eight, nine. Given the numerous cop cars and an influx of neighbors opening their doors to see what’s going on, I am scared, wondering what on Earth could be happening. I am shaking and cold and have snot spread in every direction on my face (I am not a clean crier). Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen police cars. I want to pray but I don’t have words. Fourteen, fifteen…firetruck.

Firetruck!?

IS THAT SANTA CLAUS!!!??????

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” a classic voice shouts from the window, waving to the neighbors.

“Look, Santa,” I hear one of my neighbors call out to her children, urging them to come outside.

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two and a… MEGAPHONE?

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!”” kids shout from the megaphone, hands out the backseat window, waving.

Twenty three, twenty four, twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine mostly smiling police officers, occasionally waving to the crowds on the street.

I am still crying. And shaking. And now smiling and laughing, laughing so hard my stomach feels like it’s doing crunches. Thirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty three, thirty four, thirty five, thirty six, thirty seven, thirty eight, thirty nine. I am smiling at the heavens, feeling the steady rain meet my face like long-time old friends embracing one another in an airport. The moment is so… holy… so joyful.

Forty, forty one. Yes, I’m still counting. The cars are still coming, sirens flashing, some sounding, some with smiling officers, others looking just about as confused as myself (especially the police officer driving a Harford County police car… something tells me this county cop has never seen something quite like this before either. There’s a first time for everything :))

Fifty. Sixty. Seventy. I kid you not. I believe the final count was 82 (I was having a hard time keeping track because all my soul wanted to do was look up at the sky, and let my tears and my smile sing praises to the Lord because my mouth and brain could not put together a single word.)

Just when you think you can’t take one more evil, one more injustice in this world, when you feel incapable of dealing with one more fear, ask one more “what if,” face one more worry, drone one more repeated prayer over and over again for the same thing, God will do something. He will do something to sustain you, something to embrace you. He will do something comical like send 82 Christmas-parading cop cars onto your street just to make you smile and laugh in a way that only God could do. He will find a way to make it possible for you to retain hope in your heart, and whisper,keep going. I. Love. You.” I am wet from rain and tears and all I want to do is dance in the rain, dance in the middle of the street with reckless abandon, arms out open, spinning and singing, and hug each and every neighbor outside, renewed with faith, hope, and love.

But I have snot on my face. Perhaps I should shower before thinking of exchanging hugs.

I draw in one more breath of the surprisingly warm winter air and whisper back to God, “I love you too” and head inside.