24 years ago…
24 years ago I walked the mall with my 3 month old daughter in my sling. I had heard that The NAMES Project Quilt, a memorial of people who died from AIDS, would not be shown in its entirety again. I wanted to see it, so I packed a diaper bag and the baby, and headed down via Metro to the National Mall.
I remember that it was a pleasant fall day, not too hot, with bright sunshine and a brilliant blue sky. As I exited the Metro in front of the Smithsonian Castle I was enveloped in the crowds of people, and the recitation of all of the names. Family members and friends signed up to read a portion of the list. The names… on and on… read by voices cracked with grief.
I walked some (not all) of the quilt. At one point I stopped to feed my daughter, watching people go by. I changed her diaper and started walking again. She was a little fussy, so I rocked her in the sling, slowly gazing at the quilt, each 3×6 foot panel representing a life, a friend, a family member, a lover. They stretched on endlessly. I found the index of panels and located a panel from a friend from college. I heard stories from strangers. I cried with them.
At one point, a young man rushed up to me, tearful and angry, “WHY would you bring a baby to this? To THIS? She won’t remember!” I felt his anger, his sadness, and possibly a little bit of fear. We started talking, and he shared his story, and his partner’s story. He showed me his lover’s panel (I had just walked by it.) I looked at him and said, “She won’t remember. But I will tell her she was here. And then she will know…”
That baby, now 24, is a teacher. Statistically, that young man is probably dead. I find that sobering… And if we went to see the AIDS Quilt today it would be over 50 miles long. According to the CDC, (which estimates these statistics):
- in the US – 38,739 people were diagnosed as HIV+ and there were 15,807 deaths
- in the world – 36.9 million people with HIV+ and there were 940,00 deaths
While the incidence of HIV+ is decreasing, the prejudice against individuals who are diagnosed continues. As it was in the 1980s, access to adequate healthcare, including early diagnosis and treatment, is dependent on where you live, your socioeconomic status, your race, and your sexual identity. Antiretroviral medications can be expensive and have debilitating side effects. And finding a physician and care team who will support a patient who is HIV+ and their loved ones is a challenge in some parts of the country.
Even more difficult is finding a church… sadly. If you live in just about any city in America, or attended a PRIDE parade, you’ve heard a street preacher condemn people with AIDS/HIV and speak words that are cruel and homophobic. (I won’t quote them here. They get enough airtime.) The God of mercy and grace who Called me to ministry is not a punitive, angry God.
So on this anniversary of The NAMES Project display on the National Mall, I hope you’ll reflect for a moment on what we could still do as individuals, as churches, and as a nation. We have a long, long way to go.