I remember the event like it was only yesterday — a first-year seminarian matriculating at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology — finally willing to heed God’s marvelous yet mysterious call upon my life. It was the fall of 1987 and our choir director, Dr. Darsey, had prepared his elite ensemble of which I was a member to sing selected music for one of his closest friends. Seemed painless enough, so I thought. I had no idea what I would be forced to face on that sunny afternoon in Atlanta.
As we entered the modest home, we were handed masks and hospital robes and ushered up a flight of stairs. We sang songs of praise, classical cantatas and hymns upon which the Christian church had long been founded. We sang even louder than usual, probably because of the masks that covered our mouths. We clapped our hands, swayed in rhythm and pounded on our tambourines until our hands were numb.
Then, our audience of one raised himself slightly from his bed and . . . smiled. He did not have the strength to do more. And we left, confused over the cause of his physical dilemma. We soon learned that the man was dying from a disease that was for me an affliction of which I knew very little about: HIV/AIDS. Who knew that just a few letters could result in so much pain and agony.
That next year, on Dec. 1, a global initiative, World AIDS Day, was launched in efforts to raise awareness of the pandemic caused by the spread of the HIV infection and to mourn over the loss of those who had died of the disease. Since the U.S. has added its name, in 1995 to those countries who officially observe the day, AIDS has killed more than 36 million people across the globe. And with 36.7 million living with the virus as of the end of 2016, it stands as one of the most important global public health issues in history. That’s why integrated care, access to quality services and affordable and longtime care are essential today — and why Americans must remain relentless in maintaining the right for healthcare that we can all afford.
In its early days, AIDS was deemed to be a “gay disease.” And while that may have been generally true, it has long evolved into an equal opportunity affliction — a “family” disease impacting men, women, children, gays and straight, veterans and senior citizens. Meanwhile, the stigma surrounding the disease has remained alive and well, particularly within my own Black community — and yes, even within the walls of my beloved Black church.
Before medical research could unearth tools and medications that allowed for those who infected with the virus that causes AIDS to still live a long, fruitful life, short, painful deaths and frequent funerals were the norm. In fact, it was a death sentence and caused people to point fingers at its victims and shun them like 20th century lepers.
And so, I was forced to say goodbye to friends to whom I had imparted so many of my most cherished thoughts — friends with whom I had shared countless, joyful moments that I would never forget, just as I would never forget them: Kenneth M. Jones, Irvin B. Davis, Darius Jones, my younger cousin Charles Terry III and a choir director and musician, “Bucky,” who once took church to a whole new realm of celebration, thanksgiving and praise.
I’ve been lucky so far, I suppose. That is if you believe in luck. I have not contracted the virus despite engaging in more than few ridiculous and random “experiences.” But I have often wondered what if and why others and not me? I guess it has something to do with that grace which surpasses all understanding.