It was a cold rainy Monday. The date was December 1st, 2008. It was World AIDS Day and I felt compelled to commemorate the moment with my daughter by standing in solidarity with those throughout our world who have been impacted by HIV/AIDS.
I learned of a place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park called the National AIDS Memorial Grove. A ceremony was to begin within the hour so I packed up my little girl and, together, we headed into the city. I did not expect that this chance encounter would begin the process of restoration between the local HIV/AIDS community and the local faith community.
When we arrived to the park, we discovered the hidden jewel that is The Grove. With our rain gear on and with my daughter packed on my back, we immersed into what felt like a sacred space. Embedded within The Grove was a white tent, and as we entered, it felt as though we had just stumbled into a family reunion, complete with the smells of warm food and the whispered affection of people who loved one another. Rather than the HIV/AIDS community resembling the widows and orphans of Uganda, the demographic was largely white, gay and transgender men. The stigmas and stereotypes that had been embedded in me throughout my Midwestern Evangelical upbringing immediately surfaced. No sooner had we entered the tent than my surging anxiety caused me to search for its exit.
We couldn’t leave, though. We had been shown to a seat and the man behind the microphone was sharing of when AIDS ravaged San Francisco. He told stories of pain, resilience, rejection, and hope. My head jerked to attention when he commented on the local Christian church. To my dismay, rather than telling stories of unprecedented hospitality and costly love, he lamented how many church doors had remained closed and locked to their cries for help, even as his friends were dying on their doorsteps.
The commemoration concluded at the Circle of Friends. Similar to the Vietnam Wall, the Circle enshrines the names of those lost to AIDS on a limestone floor. As I held the hands of the persons on either side of me, I listened as they spoke the names of their beloved friends who had died of AIDS. I listened because I was curious, but also because I knew no one who had died of AIDS. I had no name – no life – to mourn. I had not been close enough to this community of people to be personally impacted by their pain. Fear and misunderstanding were my own contributions to the distance of our divide.
I realized in that moment that I had spent my leadership trying to connect my church to the plight of the HIV-impacted community on the other side of the world to the exclusion of the impacted community in my local context. So focused were we on the international pandemic that we had failed to see that our own location was ground zero for HIV/AIDS in North America. Further, because our local impacted community was also the LGBTQ community, I had to deal with the painful realization that I had been trained to not see them. Because I didn’t see them, I was unaware of just how severed the divide was between “us” and “them.”
As I shared these thoughts with my leadership team later that week, we all felt the stuff of conviction. In part by our own choosing, we were blind and we needed our sight healed and our hearts restored. Together, we imagined that Jesus would use those I had just met as a part of our restoration. We began by immersing into their sacred space, The Grove, as participants in a monthly workday. The work was landscaping, but the real project was friend-making. We leveraged the infrastructure of volunteerism in order to cultivate the kinds of relationships where our own restoration and that of those we had marginalized could occur. It was only within the context of those initial friendships that we discovered just how severed the divides where between us.
For years we kept showing up not as heroes, but as learners and friend-makers. Our participation in workdays turned into dynamic friendships and, ultimately, into unique collaborations that successfully expanded the HIV/AIDS conversation beyond the LGBTQ community to embrace and support other vulnerable people groups who were suffering because of the disease. Our advocacy resulted in impoverished urban women getting the attention, care, and support that they desperately needed.
Six years later, on the eve of another World AIDS Day, I had invited my friend and Executive Director of the AIDS Grove to speak at my church. I wanted him to share the story of AIDS as it had ravaged San Francisco. I also asked him to share his own story as a gay, HIV positive man and encouraged him to challenge the people of my church to keep joining God in the work of restoration. Before he arrived, he disclosed that he had been invited to speak in front of Congress and even at the White House, but that he had never once been invited to speak in a church. He was as nervous as I was when I had entered the white tent six years previous.
When he arrived that evening, he saw over fifty people that he already knew. They had shown up early to welcome him because they wanted the first fifty faces that he saw to be those of friends. He was immediately at home with us and opened his remarks that night with this: “You have faithfully joined me in my sanctuary for the past six years. It is over due for me to join you in yours.”
One year later, John invited me to speak and pray at the World AIDS Day commemoration in the The Grove. In his introduction of me, he commented on how his perspective of God, Jesus, pastors, and Christians had been restored because of our relationship. Before I took the stage, he asked this question in front of the hundreds who gathered: “Jer. When did we become us?” After years of learning to see, immersing into one another’s lives, and contending alongside each other, the pronouns were shifting. Restoration was happening for all of us.
Today, dozens of Bay Area churches are connected to the AIDS Grove community. As a result, the divide between the church and the LGBTQ community in San Francisco is mending.
Click HERE to read Part 4.
This is part 3 of 4 of an article that was modified from my book, Mending the Divides: Creative Love in a Conflicted World and recently published in Fuller Magazine. Check out this short VIDEO to learn more about Mending the Divides.